Discover the transformative impact of AI-generated virtual influencers in modern marketing, blending innovation with ethical challenges and future possibilities.
The emergence of virtual influencers powered by artificial intelligence (AI) has taken centre stage in the world of influencer marketing. These AI-generated characters, often indistinguishable from their human counterparts, are redefining the way brands connect with audiences.
Let’s delve into the evolution and technology of AI influencers and see how these personas are being integrated into brands’ marketing initiatives. We’ll also take a look at the pressing ethical considerations and future trends surrounding the use and adoption of virtual influencers.
The concept of fictional characters being used to promote a brand or product has been around since cartoon characters as brand mascots were introduced in print dating back to the early 1800s. But a mannequin named Cynthia caused a media stir in the 1930s when it was photographed in social settings among people, heralding what is considered the first non-human influencer.
Major brands such as Tiffany’s and Cartier jumped on the media attention and sent the latest jewellery and fashion garments for the mannequin to promote at major social events at the height of its fame. After an inevitable end to the hype, Cynthia laid the foundations for a curious interest people have in fictional entities playing an influencing role in media.
In the 1950s, a songwriter meddled with his vocal pitch and released The Chipmunk Song together with a trio of cartoon chipmunk characters presented as the performers. The song went on to win 3 Grammy Awards and birthed the popular Three Chipmunks legacy that evolved into cartoon characters and movie stars.
However, in the 1980s, the first computer-generated virtual influencer appeared on TV. Max Headroom was a fictional news anchor that became a TV personality, featuring in commercials for Coca-Cola and appearing on popular talk shows. Headroom is widely regarded as the first virtual influencer of the digital media era.
From this, virtual characters began to be used for entertainment purposes, such as video games and animated films. In Japanese anime, the first virtual idol created was Lynn Minmay, a fictional singer and main character of a 1982 anime television series. The 80s and 90s began to see more virtual idols making a media stir, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that they entered the mainstream.
Hatsune Miku, originally a personification of music production software, became a global pop sensation when hundreds of music producers used the character’s voice and image to perform songs on international stages using holograms and media graphics. Miku became the world’s first computer-generated global icon.
The real breakthrough came with the introduction of virtual influencers designed specifically for social media platforms.
Platforms like Instagram witnessed the rise of virtual influencers, such as Lil Miquela, Lu do Magalu and Aitana López. The success of these AI influencers showcases the global nature of this trend.
Lu do Magalu is a virtual influencer created by Brazilian retail giant Magazine Luiza and the most followed virtual influencer in the world. It is designed to engage audiences with lifestyle content and seamlessly integrates with the brand’s marketing strategies. It has even been used for product reviews and unboxing videos.
Lil Miquela is one of the pioneers in the virtual influencer space, renowned for collaborations with prestigious fashion labels such as Prada, Dior, and Calvin Klein. In 2017, she unveiled her debut single and premiered of her first music video at Lollapalooza’s online festival in 2023.
Aitana López is an AI-generated virtual influencer created by a Spanish modelling agency that earns up to $1000 per advert it is featured in. Created as a way to avoid dealing with the egos of real models and influencers, the AI influencer is designed to look and ‘act’ according to what the agency regards as a global preference.
Creating and maintaining a virtual influencer involves a sophisticated blend of artificial intelligence, computer graphics, and machine learning.
The AI algorithms responsible for generating realistic facial expressions, body movements, and even voice generation make the entities appear lifelike.
The future of virtual influencers could see the characters evolve into more lifelike personifications of real people thanks to technological advancements in GenAI for real-time character scripting, AI-powered voices, and augmented reality (AR).
These potential developments could further enhance the immersive experience of interacting with virtual influencers, making them even more integral to marketing strategies.
The integration of AI influencers into traditional influencer marketing is drastically reshaping the industry in real-time. The advantages are evident in their constant availability, global reach, and potentially lower costs compared to human influencers.
However, there are certain challenges that brands need to overcome if they want to leverage this trend, such as the lack of human touch and scepticism regarding their authenticity.
As virtual influencers powered by AI become integral to marketing strategies, ethical considerations come to the forefront.
As GenAI advances swiftly, the question of whether audiences are aware that they are interacting with AI is crucial. As the technology gets better, it will become harder to distinguish what is real and what is not. Maintaining transparency about the virtual nature of these influencers is essential for brands to establish trust and credibility.
The digital nature of virtual influencers opens up possibilities for content manipulation and carefully crafted messaging. In some cases, messaging might promote certain agendas and narratives not displayed forthrightly. Or products or services might not be presented as they are in reality. Brands must navigate these possibilities ethically to avoid misleading their audience.
The creation of idealised images by virtual influencers may contribute to unrealistic beauty standards. This raises concerns about the potential reinforcement of stereotypes and the impact on the self-esteem of the audience. After all, AI influencers are created by algorithms so their appearance will often be impossible for people to attain.
An interesting observation is that successful virtual influencers are predominantly female. This raises questions about the dynamics of gender representation in virtual influencer marketing and its potential impact on societal perceptions. Is it because more women are on social media than men? Or is it because brands see the potential of sexualising virtual influencers to include men?
Thanks to its current success, there is no doubt that virtual influencers will be used more in influencer marketing in the future.
The real impact of this phenomenon will likely rise as emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), advanced voice generation, and the potential incorporation of web3 technologies take shape. These innovations could revolutionise the way virtual influencers engage with audiences.
Virtual influencers are not just a passing trend; they are becoming key players in shaping the future of social media marketing. The ability to seamlessly integrate with brands, deliver consistent messaging and engage audiences globally makes them indispensable assets for forward-thinking marketers.
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