Virtual influencers have taken the digital world by storm, revolutionizing content creation, consumption, and marketing. These digital avatars, a fusion of cutting-edge technology and our innate desire for connection, have captured millions of adoring fans. However, beneath the surface lies a world of risks and blurred realities.

What Are Virtual Influencers?

Virtual influencers, also known as digital influencers or AI influencers, are not an entirely new concept, with virtual Japanese popstar Kyoko Date dating back to 1996. Recent technological advances have brought them into the limelight. These digital personalities maintain a presence on social media, engaging with the world from a first-person perspective. Crafted by 3D artists using CGI, motion-capture technology, and AI tools, they can be customized in appearance and behavior to align with specific target audiences. There are three main types of virtual influencers: non-humans, animated humans, and lifelike CGI humans, each offering innovative ways to connect with audiences.

Why Do Virtual Influencers Exist?

Advancements in AI, the growth of social media, and the emergence of the metaverse have synergistically propelled the rise of virtual influencers. They have become a cost-effective promotional strategy for marketing agencies, offering advantages such as agelessness, immunity to scandals, and multilingual capabilities. The cost of collaborating with virtual influencers can be significantly lower than that of real influencers with millions of followers.

The Transparency Issue

Virtual influencers inhabit a unique cultural space, blurring the boundaries between our world and the virtual realm. One pressing concern is transparency, as these digital entities increasingly resemble real humans. This issue becomes particularly challenging in advertising contexts. Clear guidelines are needed for the use and disclosure of virtual influencer content.

India has taken a proactive approach to address this concern. In January, its Department of Consumer Affairs mandated that social media influencers, including virtual influencers, disclose promotional content as per the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. Similarly, TikTok has updated its community guidelines to require clear disclosure for synthetic or manipulated media.

A Messi Way to Make Money

The rise of virtual replicas, including deepfakes, has raised questions about the use of a person’s likeness, both with and without their consent. While celebrity deepfake porn is on the rise, celebrities are also including “simulation rights” in their contracts, permitting the use of their digital likeness for promotional purposes. For instance, soccer star Lionel Messi allowed PepsiCo to use a digital version of him to endorse Lay’s potato chips. However, this opens the door to potential exploitation if individuals unknowingly or desperately sell their digital likeness without proper consent or compensation.

Will the Virtual Replace the Human?

For now, the relationship between virtual and human influencers seems more like coexistence than replacement. Virtual influencers cannot connect with people in the same way real humans can, though the future may hold changes in this dynamic. Human content creators must adapt to this evolving landscape, viewing virtual influencers as both inspiration and competition, transforming the nature of creativity and influence online. They may need to collaborate or find ways to work alongside virtual influencers to remain relevant.

In this brave new world of virtual influencers, the line between the real and the digital blurs further, bringing with it exciting possibilities and challenging ethical considerations for marketers and consumers alike.

By Impact Lab