Virtual influencers are just about everything trend-seekers idealize in a person: they’re cool, they’re popular, and they’re good-looking. But, they’re not real.
Virtual influencers are computer-generated personas used by companies to promote products and services through social media. The problem is, they’re almost so real that an unsuspecting customer might not even know the difference. And, their popularity is booming.
One of the most well-known virtual influencers Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela, currently holds a whopping 1.6 million followers on Instagram. This virtual influencer rocks designer clothes, frequents high-profile events, and even “hangs out with” real life celebrities like Bella Hadid. It’s no surprise that Sousa’s popularity soared and she’s now even featured in campaigns for companies like Calvin Klein and Prada.
Sousa first appeared on Instagram in 2016, created by Los Angeles-based start-up tech company Brud. Other companies are also quickly catching up to speed with the trend, with high-end brands like Dior, Balmain, and Fenty Beauty presenting their own versions of virtual influencers in recent ad campaigns.
So, should brands consider using virtual influencers for the future of their marketing campaigns? The answer: It’s complicated.
Vanitha Swaminathan, a marketing professor at the University of Pittsburgh, believes there are advantages for brands to use virtual influencers instead of real-life humans. Swaminathan considers virtual influencers as the modern-day version of fictional brand characters, similar to the idea of the Pillsbury Doughboy. These types of characters and virtual personas can basically be manipulated to do whatever the brand wants, adding the benefits of no sick-days, and perfect appearance and performance.
KFC is an example of one brand who has mockingly adopted a fashionable, good-lucking virtual influencer version of Colonel Sanders to replace his human counterpart. This persona sports a rocking body, a clean combover haircut and even has a humorous take on a media kit to “collab” with other partners.
But, before all brands jump into this new trend, they should be cautioned.
Swaminathan believes these virtual influencers might just be so real that consumers might not even realize the difference, which can potentially harm consumer-brand relationships over time. Moreover, this trend also tests the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to ensure consumer awareness of advertising.
There are currently no specific addresses to advertising through virtual influencers from the FTC, but they do warn companies that use fictional characters for marketing to make sure that “any claims communicated about the product are truthful, not misleading and substantiated.”
Therefore, this can become complicated if there are consumers who do believe these fictional characters are real and their claims are truthful, in which case they would be misled. Swaminathan says she would expect future FTC regulations to require companies to specifically label virtual influencers as ‘virtual’ with no real counterpart.
Although virtual influencers are on the rise, Swaminathan believes that virtual influencers may become more prevalent as long as brands approach it with transparency and openness.