The discussion around CGI, or virtual, influencers reached its peak late last year as more and more people became aware of their robotic presence on social media. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, we are looking to explore how effective this form of digital marketing is, or could be.
Virtual influencers are essentially characters created using CGI who post on Instagram like any other user. Their feeds are filled with deceptively realistic content, that is not only aesthetically pleasing but aims to supply them with a multi-dimensional personality.
The creators use everything from complicated backstories, to friendships with other virtual influencers to make them seem more lifelike and relatable. For example, one of these CGI influencers, Bermuda, is an ex-Trump supporter shrouded in controversy, whilst another, Miquela, has recently been appointed arts editor at Dazed.
Ridiculous, right? Who could possibly fall for this, you’re thinking. Well, judging by Miquela’s 1.5 million followers on Instagram, a lot of people.
Reading through the comments on Miquela’s Instagram feed makes for a surreal experience.
On one hand, you have people engaging on a seemingly genuine and authentic level with this CGI character, complimenting Miquela and inquiring about various clothing items and products. At the other end of the spectrum there are abusive trolls and people voicing their confusion about her true form. Even more bizarre, however, are her protective group of fans who are quick to jump to the defence of a robot…
The most infamous of CGI influencers, Bermuda, Miquela and Blawko, were created by Sara Decou and Trevor McFedries from LA start-up Brud. The AI and robotics company are notoriously quiet about their project, disclosing limited information on its profitability and true purpose. Furthermore, Brud waited two years before even announcing that Miquela was actually one of their creations.
The lack of financial information provided by Brud makes it difficult to assess the monetary value of CGI influencers, but the general level of acceptance, or ambivalence, from consumers illustrates that if leveraged properly this could be a solution to some of the problems caused by human influencers.
In a recent interview on Refinery 29’s website (a digital media and entertainment company), a follower of Miquela’s admitted that “I don’t mind that she’s not ‘real’ at all…The world that has developed around her is real enough to promote good content. It’s almost the same as looking at other influencers – I’ll probably never meet them in person, so I’m not really missing much by following someone I actually cannot meet physically.”
Indeed, most human influencers, who despite their attempts to appear like ‘one of us are’, are still extremely detached from most people’s everyday reality. CGI influencers offer a vision of perfection which is knowingly unattainable, providing a degree of comfort that real life influencers can’t give.
Consumers are less likely to develop an inferiority complex when faced with computer generated Instagrammers that don’t exist in the real world. However, this comes with its own problems as consumers may become discouraged from buying products endorsed by them as they know they will be unable to replicate their fantastical lifestyles – latest product or not!
In the past, Miquela has recommended haircare products on her Instagram, despite the glaringly obvious fact that the products are not actually going to work on computer generated hair. Asking a potential customer to completely suspend their disbelief and buy in to products that are being endorsed, but not tried and tested by these influencers, is surely pushing the boundary of consumer expectation too far?
Even the portrayal of clothing on these CGI models isn’t entirely accurate as the images can be easily modified to give the appearance of fitting perfectly and may not represent the product entirely truthfully. Also, despite the flagrant representation of particular brands, like Nike (see above), there doesn’t seem to be any requirement to declare sponsorship or a working partnership. The guidelines surrounding CGI influencers and brand endorsements are shaky at best.
Regardless of these issues, some brands find it easier to work with virtual influencers as it allows them to have more control over the images produced. Another positive is that they don’t have to deal with a clash of interest or human limitations.
The minefield of influencer marketing is often skirted around wearily by digital marketers. This not entirely explored land is still rife with potential problems and if it wasn’t already complicated enough to decide if influencers are worth investing money in, the CGI element adds another layer of risk. The industry as a whole needs to become more transparent, with more research being conducted into the financial side.
Until these changes are made, it is likely that CGI influencers will remain as an entertaining novelty, rather than a solid investment choice.