Virtual realities

Are Virtual Influencers More Valuable to Brands than Humans?

CGI virtual influencers connect idealism and capitalism in technologically advanced ways, but are they changing the face of social media and brand marketing for good?

“I still think she’s real,” said my mom as she glossed over the blemish-free Instagram page of salable CGI influencer Lil Miquela.

I was attempting to show her that the teenage virtual model is fictional and could easily be superimposed onto images with other celebrities, but my mom wasn’t buying it.

While Lil Miquela’s dedicated audience is (now) aware of her fictional status, the transmedia company responsible for creating the virtual influencer in 2016, Brud, gloats in a blanket statement that the California-based Miquela is “as real as Rihanna.” However, it’s a fact that Rihanna is literally human—so what’s the case for Lil Miquela, and what, precisely, is Brud trying to embed within the minds of her followers?

The Virtual Pull

“CGI influencers capture the public’s attention in the same way traditional influencers and models do,” says Kevin Rapp, Creative Lead for Root Insurance. “They sell a lifestyle that people want to be a part of.” The “lifestyle” that Rapp’s referencing includes CGI influencers having makeshift photo shoots in nearly any imaginable environment, from concert festivals to traveling abroad. “Honestly, [CGI influencers] seem like a natural progression of influencer advertising.”

“Brands have worked to blur the line between reality and advertising,” Rapp continues, explaining why he believes that CGI influencers will become increasingly prominent in the next decade. “Social media has created an avenue for distorted and idealized versions of identity. Creating wholesale digital identities to sell products, unfortunately, feels like a logical next step.”

"There is seemingly limitless potential in how these influencers can be utilized, as long as consumers are willing to engage."

And it very well may be. The rise of various CGI personas is steadily inclining, and Lil Miquela isn’t the only virtual influencer whose presence on Instagram has become magnified. There's the “robot queen” Bermuda, another Brud creation who repped right-wing politics when she first appeared on the scene as Lil Miquela’s rival. Similar to Lil Miquela, Japanese CGI model Imma (created by Tokyo-based modeling firm ModelingCafe) has attracted 175K followers since her creation in 2018. In the past year, she’s drummed up campaigns with Magnum Ice Cream, BAPE Japan, and had an exclusive fashion editorial with i-D Japan. There’s even Shudu, who claims (despite a lack of sentience) to be the world’s first virtual supermodel. She even landed a spot on Fenty Beauty’s Instagram page to promote their lipstick in 2018.

Derived from a specific Daz 3D software model, Lil Miquela was the first of her ilk with room for digital simulation through commercialized appeal—garnering partnerships with Calvin Klein, Prada and Coachella. Due to numerous commercial endorsements, Miquela’s notoriety and Gen-Z relevance has even made her a recent signee with Talent Agency CAA. Before Lil Miquela became an internet powerhouse, though, her existence began from scratch.

CGI artists first create a model or 3D sculpture of the influencer, building their texture within a reference photo and appearance through software programming. While the Daz 3D model is visually flawless, Rapp shares that one of the tricks to Lil Miquela’s popularity is the relatability of her features. “The biggest issue with computer-generated imagery is that it’s inherently perfect, and that’s not how things exist in reality,” he says, noting that humans don’t have as “precise” contours as virtual models. “The key to making something more relatable is to add imperfections. That’s why on a character like Lil Miquela you see a lot of freckles or gaps between the teeth. It’s an attempt to make her look less perfect and therefore more real.”

Smoke and Mirrors

While these CGI influencers are seemingly intended to mirror humanity, freelance animator Galen Tipton guesses that this trend may eventually warp into a dystopian surrealism. “While I don't think CGI influencers will garner more attention than human ones throughout the decade, I can see them getting stranger and less human when it comes to appearance and personality,” Tipton says, noting that audiences may become unenthused with CGI influencers selling their posh lifestyles. “I can see the idea of the CGI influencer adapting to this and instead of sterile, perfectly idealized humans, [they’ll become] more expressive and strange, possibly even aggressively less human.”

But before that happens, existing celebrities and influencers may segue into creating digital versions of themselves, especially as platforms like Fortnite push virtual concerts. Other social platforms have taken a similar approach: In January, singer Tinashe held a Facebook-streamed virtual concert with entertainment tech company WaveVR in which she performed songs that the audience chose, even chatting with them during breaks.

Spawning the One Wave concert series on WaveVR this summer, the success of Tinashe’s livestream was just enough to add artists such as John Legend and Galantis to the interactive tour. Live virtual engagements gives social platforms the tools for celebrities to connect with fans, with additional outreach to various brands. “There is seemingly limitless potential in how these influencers can be utilized, as long as consumers are willing to engage,” Rapp says. And as virtual influencers go mainstream, there’s room for CGI creations to become nearly indistinguishable from the human form, which, for now at least, seems to add to their potential for commercialized successes.

"Will we get to a point in which CGI influencers are deemed more valuable to brands than humans?"

With the public encouraged to #stayathome during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is even greater potential for consumers to engage with CGI influencers, who have been able to remain marketable despite the pandemic. Now stuck inside, there’s less opportunity for human influencers to post the idealized images so much of their success seems to depend on, giving CGI influencers the reins to create their own environments through relatable quarantine-style content. This begs the question: Will we get to a point in which CGI influencers are deemed more valuable to brands than humans?

Alternate Reality

Are there hidden dangers behind the CGI-verse interacting with reality? Shudu embraces her identity as a Black South African woman through her captions and traditional clothing—but her creator is a white British man, Cameron James-Wilson, who’s possibly fetishizing the idea of an African woman. The virtual model has been portrayed nude, and donning traditional African garments, all the while being voiceless—drawing the side-eye from those who say that her portrayal points to the dangers of racial projections, especially since a Black, South African woman was not part of her inception.

In a similar vein, Lil Miquela’s Brazilian-American identity has been a topic of conversation revolving immigration laws. Lil Miquela is, of course, unsilenced, just check her IG post captions—or her Twitter. Last December, singer Kehlani called Lil Miquela out on the platform for her commentary on sexual harassment. Others have commended her activism, but it seems that her “wokeness” is yet another ploy for social engagement—with implications that reach beyond her CGI world. Is Lil Miquela cashing in on her vague calls for racial equality by partnering with numerous brands?

“If a company is running a fictional character just for promotional reasons the line should be drawn there,” says freelance 3D and CGI artist W4__NG (aka “Boe”) of Lil Miquela’s use of identity politics to connect with her audience. “[The people behind her] are trying to make [Lil Miquela] more relatable by making these controversial stories up, rendering her in a more life-like form with her mannerism and gestures, which leaves [those unfamiliar with Lil Miquela] creeped out and scared for what’s to come next of A.I.”

While brands might be able to have CGI influencers speak on behalf of their products with impeccable control, their artificial messages could measure up to being generic—and more exploitative than honest. Brands should be cautious of this, as their target audience may pick up on influencers being disingenuous, likely feeling taken advantage of.

"Artificial messages could measure up to being generic—and more exploitative than honest."

“This type [of] blurring of reality and non-reality they have introduced will definitely seep its way into advertising culture more and more as brands continue to think of new and creative ways to make us want things,” Tipton says about social media further segueing into a virtual experience. With more time to create virtual content in quarantine, CGI influencer branding will ramp up technological advancement at a faster pace—especially as the industry is projected to reach $2 billion this year. As advertising moves towards futurism, it’s important to create balance between the virtual world and reality—though CGI creations are engaging, they can’t replace the authenticity of human connection.

Still, the public’s fascination with the virtual dimension stems from the intrigue of simulated reality, leading to questions about the future of innovation and technology. As we embrace the advancement of the internet through CGI influencers, in time, it may shift the face of technological culture—possibly edging out human appeal. While the new wave of virtual content may become the face of the growing digital age, questions may arise regarding its impact on the media—questions that can’t be hidden behind the optical illusions of CGI. “Maybe CGI influencers will be given AI and become sentient?” muses Tipton, ruminating on the future of the digital market. “It’s too early to say for sure, but either way it’ll be exciting—and potentially frightening—to see.”

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Ohio, who has written for Billboard, MTV News, VICE and more. She focuses on cultural pieces, especially within music, race, feminism and social criticism.

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