Mixing reality and fantasy, virtual influencers thrive amid the pandemic

·5 min read

Before Hope Jacobson set out to explore the universe of virtual influencers as a college assignment, she'd already been drawn in as a fan. The more she followed the lifelike character Miquela, the more Jacobson found her persona to be relatable.

Miquela, a 19-year-old self-described "robot," mixes humour with "reality TV style drama" and personal diary-like posts, Jacobson, in Chicago, said. "In a weird way, she's very human."

Such is the allure of virtual influencers: sometimes cartoonishly fake, sometimes strikingly true to life, but always engaging to their audience. And that's what they're made to do: keep fans hooked.

For advertisers, it's proven a tantalizing combination. And amid a pandemic, virtual influencers have been increasingly hard to cast aside as a fad. Without any restrictions on their movements or activities, they've been able to do what "regular" human influencers simply cannot.

In just one post in October, Miquela posed in front of a McDonald's restaurant and wore brown Timberland-brand boots for her 2.9 million Instagram followers to see — highlighting the mainstream growth of an industry that was worth an estimated $8 billion US in 2019 and could be on its way to nearly double by 2022.

It's hard to gauge the size of the industry in other terms; it's unclear how many characters have been created with the hope of scoring promotional contracts.

VirtualHumans.org, which tracks the industry, says "hundreds" of virtual influencers have been created. Many boast hundreds of thousands — or millions — of fans on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and other platforms. A recent report by the Hype Auditor, a social media analytics firm, suggested virtual influencers "have almost three times the engagement rate of real influencers," a measure of audience involvement.

In 2020, "with a lot of the regular entertainment world shut down, it's been a good time" for the characters, said Paul Budnitz, CEO of Superplastic, a Vermont-based firm that has its own collection of digital online figures. Budnitz describes it as "a management company for animated celebrities."

"They're not going to give anyone COVID-19," he said.

WATCH: Virtual influencer Miquela's music video, Speak Up.

Jacobson, who recently obtained a sociology degree from Iowa's Loras College, focused on the computer-generated characters for her final year project, "A Deep Dive into the World of Virtual Influencers."

Her conclusion? "It's not as clear [whether] this is a good trend or a scary trend," Jacobson said in an interview. "There's a lot of grey area here."

Indeed, the digital trend is raising questions in the real world about cultural appropriation and transparency.

Popular avatars often have a creative team behind them, designing their clothes, writing their social media posts and signing the promotional deals that make the character lucrative.

But to observers, it can get uncomfortable when the humans making the money have no clear connection to the character they're creating, particularly when the avatar is meant to appear as a person of colour.

Take for instance the self-described "first virtual supermodel," Shudu. Portrayed as a tall, slim Black woman, the character was in fact created by a white man.

Other virtual influencers regularly post messages highlighting social issues, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, while avoiding the backlash real-life supporters have faced.

"The creator behind a virtual character might not be ... connected with the character," said Ruby Chan, a Hong Kong-based digital artist who goes by "Ruby 9100m" online.

Sensing the rise in popularity of virtual influencers as early as 2015, she created a computer-generated avatar to replace her own real-life influencer persona. "Some of us are not as authentic," she said.

Virtual transparency

Makana Chock, an associate professor at Syracuse University's school of public communications, said the trend of fake characters promoting real products is not new.

"We've spent decades having a cartoon tiger sell us cereal," she said, referring to Tony, the mascot who's long pitched Frosted Flakes.

Peter Wynn Thompson/AP Images for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes
Peter Wynn Thompson/AP Images for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes

However, Chock said the arrival of real-looking avatars with personalities and back stories creates the potential for a transparency problem.

"The big issue is going to be if the companies that produce these avatars do so without informing the public."

Particularly with the rise in artificial intelligence, Chock fears companies will be tempted to blur the line between reality and fantasy by not openly declaring the character isn't actually the one pulling the strings.

"I think there will always be a market for real influencers," Chock said.

Although Miquela now calls herself a "robot," it wasn't always so clear. In 2016, the Washington Post referred to the character as "something of a cult mystery."

Not all virtual influencers run the risk of being misconstrued as a real person.

Turgut Yeter/CBC
Turgut Yeter/CBC

Take Guggimon -- a creation of Paul Budnitz's Superplastic firm — an axe-wielding bunny-like character whose back story says he's from Montreal's hip Mile End neighbourhood. With 1.4 million followers on Instagram, Guggimon gets more traction on the platform than the NHL's Canadiens but far fewer than another Quebec star, Céline Dion.

"I don't feel like the experience is any different than following … a regular human celebrity," Budnitz said. "The difference is the narrative leaves what we call 'standard reality' sometimes."

He said his firm's virtual stars have "pretty giant media projects" coming soon, involving film and streaming.

Guggimon toys are known to sell out quickly after they're put on sale. Before the pandemic, Toronto Collective, a lifestyle shop, would even host launch parties for Superplastic merchandise with DJs and breakdance battles.

Sean Commandant, a co-owner of Toronto Collective, called the toys "super, super popular." In a recent interview at his shop in Toronto's Chinatown, he wondered if the characters' online personas, nudging fans toward sponsors such as luxury fashion brand Gucci, would only become more popular in the coming years.

"Maybe," he said, "the future's headed in that direction."