The rise of virtual influencers: the reasons why, ethical issues and a success story

The rise of virtual influencers: the reasons why, ethical issues and a success story

Alberto Maestri Published on 7/8/2024

This article was conceived and written in collaboration with Federica Morichetti, copywriter and content manager at GreatPixel.

Influencer marketing – a crucial communication and marketing toolfor all modern businesses – has got more and more complicated over the last few years. Following controversies involving influencers large and small that have led to calls for stricter regulation, businesses are increasingly reluctant to rely on real people to promote their products.

Living, breathing influencers bring with them a certain degree of unpredictability that comes from being human: they grow older and are liable to make mistakes (as the recent Pandorogate story involving Italian influencer Chiara Ferragni and a charity Christmas cake showed all too clearly). As a result, growing numbers of brands – including some very big names – are now turning to virtual influencers instead.

One example is Lil Miquela, the virtual star with over 2.6 million followers on Instagram who has formed successful partnerships with brands of the calibre of Prada and BMW.

Virtual influencers: who are they, and where did they originate?

Virtual influencers combine various disciplines: artificial intelligence and CGI, augmented reality, motion capture and machine learning.

They are by no means a new phenomenon: indeed, one of the first successful examples came way back in 1996 in the form of virtual pop star (as this 1997 Entertainment Weekly article article defines her) Kyoko Date. This avatar, designed to look like a typical Japanese idol, was hugely popular, and her tracks raced up the charts in her ‘native’ country.

Today, virtual influencers – mostly women – are everywhere. As technology has evolved and real influencers’ photos have become more heavily airbrushed, distinguishing one from the other has become more challenging, exacerbated by the trend of giving the avatars distinctive features to make them more ‘imperfect’ and so increase their level of realism.

Examples of this are Lil Miquela‘s freckles and the small gap between her teeth, or the vitiligo given to Nefele, the first Italian virtual influencer. Virtual influencers are intentionally showcasing unconventional, multiethnic and gender-fluid forms of beauty, designed to reflect the younger generations’ tastes and, paradoxically, to respond to demand from users for models that celebrate human uniqueness.

Virtual influencers and the uncanny valley effect

These avatars are equally realistic in their behaviour on social platforms. Despite being typically funded by start-ups or large businesses, their arrival on social media is rarely pre-announced. Instead, they tend to appear on the various channels without warning, fuelling speculation among users and adding to the sense of mystery that surrounds them. Part of their success stems from their ability to encourage users to investigate them in more depth and devise their own theories, and the question of how much (if any) of their content is real is always left open to debate.

The virtual influencers around today are realistic enough to have fooled some users at the start, but when you start looking more closely, certain details tend to emerge that reveal their artificial nature. Their hair is always lacking definition, their skin is too perfect, and their eyes are flat and expressionless. In no time at all, you enter what is known as Uncanny Valley.

The Uncanny Valley concept is based on a 1970s theory by Japanese robotics scientist Masahiro Mori, who demonstrated how the humanisation of robots would eventually reach a level where an initial positive reaction quickly turns to repulsion.

Uncanny Valley is the name given to the strange sensation you get when you see something that looks extremely similar to a human, but not quite similar enough; when you feel something is not quite right, the character doesn’t act quite how a person normally would, or certain details don’t look natural, making you feel uncomfortable or alarmed.

However, this sensation also holds the key to virtual influencers’ success. The sense of strangeness grabs users’ attention, keeping them glued to the screen and turning them into followers. The vital element here is curiosity: nobody knows who is behind these characters or the precise creative process involved.

As a result, when you see these figures appear alongside athletes, singers and celebrities, you wonder what it is you are seeing:

  • Is their image fully virtual, or do they have a model’s body?
  • And is their voice (if they have one) artificial or dubbed?

The creators slyly refuse to answer questions like these, to keep the public hooked.

The queen of virtual influencers: Lil Miquela

Miquela Sousa is the unquestioned master of blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Her alter ego Lil Miquela was launched on Instagram in 2016, but she now has an established presence on all platforms, with 3.5 million followers on TikTok, over 1 million on Facebook and a flourishing YouTube channel. In her interviews and videos she describes herself as a 21-year-old woman from California with Brazilian roots – a singer, model and activist.

Although she now consciously advertises her virtual nature, she was originally much less open about it. From the word go, Miquela was a smart marketing campaign based mostly on the element of mystery: no details were revealed about her creators for two years after the profile was launched. This lasted until 2018, when a new character called Bermuda appeared on the scene: a Caucasian model who had apparently hacked Miquela’s account, only to reveal the trick and unveil Brud, the Los Angeles-based firm responsible for both characters.

Nevertheless, Miquela still calls herself a robot with a physical body: a lie that comes in useful for storytelling that places her in various situations, including festivals, concerts and fashion shoots.

In 2018, Miquela was added to Time‘s list of the 25 most influential people on the internet and today she is one of the most sought-after faces for brands, even becoming the ambassador for the iX2, BMW‘s new 100% electric car.

Francesca Giubelli, Italy’s first CGI influencer. Source: Official Instagram

Possible ethical implications

The obvious question that arises from this phenomenon is to what extent virtual influencers can replace traditional ones. There are plenty of people predicting dystopian futures in which humans are completely replaced by avatars, but the virtual alternative has its fair share of problems that need to be tackled.

Lil Miquela provides a useful example here too. She is a self-declared activist, and is often associated with topics like the Black Lives Matter movement or defending LGBTQIA+ rights. She has certain somatic traits that her designers probably gave her on purpose, hoping to attract a wider audience and cement her association with the theme of inclusivity. This approach has been widely criticised, as it is often seen as exploiting the topic for marketing purposes.

Associating a virtual character with such delicate topics can be risky, if not downright offensive. This came to a head in 2019 when Miquela published a video on her YouTube channel describing an episode of harassment she had supposedly suffered. The breezy and informal way she delivered the content and the storytime format provoked a surge of outrage.

Many users, aware that companies are hiding behind the virtual influencers they see, are worried about the potential trivialisation of social issues like inclusivity, racism and sexism. Miquela often talks about her mental health or about feeling discriminated against as a non-human, and while this type of content can, in some cases, promote a positive message, who gets to decide what is ethically acceptable?

There is no definitive answer to this question at the moment, but it is not inconceivable that virtual influencers could one day run into regulatory issues