Idols and virtual influencers – the future faces of advertising
New technologies allow versatile advertising and promotional techniques to be used for capturing the attention of bigger audiences. More and more music industry relies on virtual idols which in some cases can be based on real people. In addition to this, the character of virtual influencer has appeared on the business stage lending a totally new dimension to contemporary advertising.
A virtual influencer is a digital character created with computer software and made accessible on social media platforms (e.g. Instagram, YouTube) for the purpose of influence. Virtual influencers operate in a human-like manner in the digital realm by connecting with social media users through many forms of communication such as vlogs, posts and provision of comments on users’ posts. Their popularity within young consumers is on the rise and has led to brands lining up to capitalise on their fame.
Virtual influencers represent a broader category than virtual idols. The latter has a particular role in musical activities but companies tend to utilize virtual idols to promote also their brands and products.
Originating in Japan but also experimented with elsewhere, the virtual idol is a media performance which exists independently of the referent of any living performer. Daniel Black (2012) (The Virtual Idol: Producing and Consuming Digital Femininity Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture. In Patrick W. Galbraith, Jason G. Karlin (eds.), Palgrave Macmillan) argues that “this media image’s independence from any single living body provides an opportunity for a new kind of relationship to be established between idol and fan”. In some cases such totally new bond, being overwhelmingly one between an artificial woman and a male consumer and contingent upon “the commodification and mass-production of a certain kind of femininity” exhibits new technology nourished gender dimensions.
As an example of the virtual idols phenomenon will be interesting to follow the “career” of Hatsune Miku, the teal-pigtailed wunderkind, whose name literally means “the first sound of the future”. She is a virtual pop star created by Japanese music software company Crypton Future Media. Miku is not the first virtual musician brought to life by projections. Gorillaz, the collaboration between musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, performs as cartoon characters backed by live musicians. The emerging trend of “hologram technology,” a blanket phrase for all kinds of projections popularized when a facsimile of the killed several years before the first Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (2012) musician Tupac Shakur appeared on stage, is literally capable to bring musicians back from ‘the other world”. Since the technology is available, popular deceased stars like Elvis or Michael Jackson can also rise from the dead to the greatest satisfaction of their devoted fans.
Miku is an unconventional pop star whose origin story unknowingly predicted many of the trends and trials the music industry faces today. Factually Miku is unique among other virtual experiments. Apart from her voice, recorded during development by Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita, she is otherwise totally customizable. Everything else about her, from her image to her music, is built by her millions of adoring fans. Judging by the difficulties in cultural and music realm generated by the COVID pandemic Miku can be viewed as a pioneer paving the way for new conceptions of what modern live music united with unbridled fandom can achieve.
The first significant virtual influencer would be Lil Miquela, whose character is a Brazilian-American model living in California and is a self-proclaimed ‘change seeking robot’. As of this date, Lil Miquela has over 2.9 million Instagram followers and has been named as one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet. She has worked with major brands including Samsung, Prada, and Calvin Klein and her modelling and influencer activities have earned her almost US$12 million in 2020. The success of Lil Miquela has also affected the popularity of similar virtual influencers, including Shudu Gram and Noonoouri, digital models loved by the fashion community.
Virtual influencers are also rapidly gaining momentum in China where large conglomerates such as Alibaba and Tencent have created virtual influencers to promote multiple products and services on their respective platforms. The fame and profitability of virtual influencers have led to an increase in investment in the industry. The company behind Lil Miquela, Los Angeles-based AI start-up Brud, has received around US$30 million in venture capital in 2019 and is currently valued at around US$125 million. Meanwhile, in China, Shanghai Xmov received approximately RMB 100 million in funding from investors in 2019, among which include Sequoia Capital, which invested in Brud in 2018. With these stunning figures, it is clear that the role of virtual influencers as marketing and branding tools will rapidly soar in the near future.
Pros and cons on the scales
The main advantage of virtual influencers is that they are completely controllable. They can convey a brand narrative that can be perfectly tailored to the company’s preference. Companies do not have to worry about distancing themselves from the influencer to limit reputational damage, nor do they have to spend huge sums to celebrities whose behaviour sometimes can be absolutely unpredictable. Virtual influencers can also easily reach out to younger audiences. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also proved that virtual influencers will not be impacted by lockdowns or limited by physical and technical constraints, allowing for a wider variety of content to be generated in any situation.
From a legal perspective whoever created the virtual influencer should protect their intellectual property rights as well as any content generated by them, whereas companies should lookout for any potential intellectual property challenges caused by such collaboration. It is still unknown to what extent virtual influencers are subject to regular advertising restrictions. To comply with the classical advertising rules, advertisements made by virtual influencers should not be misleading or deceptive and should explicitly disclose the promotional nature of the content. It is also necessary to make sure that posts and photos made by virtual influencers do not show brands or trade-marks of any entity which is not part of the agreement. Uncertainty in this area may lead to situations where content published by virtual influencers is either not adequately protected or infringes third party rights. Despite the high level of control creators and companies can exercise over a virtual influencer, side factors may cause consumers to associate a virtual influencer to the brand it is partnered within unintended ways. For instance, Lil Miquela has used her influence to support social causes such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights.
Creating a virtual influencer is a new medium that every day becomes very popular and influential. Through the support of young audiences and fans idols and virtual influencers have achieved high social recognition. These VR stars are the hallmarks of the virtual future bringing new requirements to the human world.
Compiled by Media 21 from: