Are CGI Influencers Really The Future of Influencer Marketing?
The rise of CGI Influencers – virtual constructs digitally created to mimic ‘real’ social media influencers – is proving that, for modern consumers, what you see isn’t always what you get. These avatar influencers have been specially designed to look human, and with a team of experts carefully drafting ‘life-like’ captions for their content; you’d be forgiven for doing a double take. According to Ad Week, the primary appeal of these troublesome conceptions is to mitigate the risk for brands that human influencers present; such as unpredictable behaviour and astronomical fees. However, one has to question whether this is truly the case when a human designer is still very much behind the wheel.
First to flex her binary limbs was ‘Brazilian-American’ Instagram model and artist from California; Lil Miquela.Created by Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou at LA start-up company Brud, as a digital art project, Miquela appeared on the scene in 2016. Since then, the fictional teenager (complete with endearing freckles) has become a friend to brands including Diesel, Chanel and Moncler, and partnered with fashion powerhouse Prada, to launch their Spring collection. Miquela quickly became a McGrath ‘muse’ after drawing the attention of prolific make-up artist Pat McGrath. Most recently, she was appointed to the role of Arts Editor at Dazed Magazine. Roughly 1.5 million people now follow Miquela on Instagram.
Miquela’s profile is littered with sponsored-style content, yet brand endorsements are never clearly, explicitly disclosed as ‘paid for’. An open question among marketers is how ASA and CMA disclosure legislation will apply to a world in which technology is advancing at a faster rate than the law itself.
Should CGI influencers be subject to the same rules and regulations as humans?
The current ad disclosure guidelines regarding influencer marketing do not implicitly reference CGI or virtual influencers. However, In our recent webinar and Q&A , Emma Smith - Operations Manager at the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), was fairly consistent in her assertion that influencer or branded content “must not be misleading…nor should they be unclear, ambiguous or untimely.” As it stands, virtual influencers could potentially offer brands a new loophole to side-step advertising law, therefore it seems in today’s landscape; strict guidelines are needed more than ever. It remains to be seen, as CGI influence expands as a business, (CBS This Morning recently reported influencer marketing is projected to be worth $2 billion by 2020) if governing bodies will be moved to issue more specific guidance pertaining to augmented or virtual reality, or if any punitive action will be taken.
In 2017, following in Miquela’s augmented footsteps, the world witnessed the birth of the “first digital supermodel”. Shudu’s creator, London photographer and designer Cameron James Wilson says he was inspired by a combination of a ‘Princess of South Africa’ Barbie doll and IRL model, Duckie Thot. Arguably the most realistic looking CGI influencer yet, Shudu was fashioned using 3D-modeling technology and gained widespread notoriety after Fenty Beauty reposted an image of her sporting their orange lipstick. Now with over 170K followers, Shudu recently starred as part of a trio of CGI models in Balmain’s fall campaign.
Attorney David Polgar, who has studied the ethics of technology, told CBS: “We are blurring the lines between fiction and reality…The impetus is on the legislative branch to say, ‘Maybe we need better transparency.’”Moreover, one of the most problematic challenges avatars present, is the unprecedented threat to authenticity. While the influencer marketing industry tirelessly fights in the universal battle for greater transparency and authenticity, it seems the CGI influencer army has emerged from left field with a surprise attack.
Another area posing ethical complications is the topic of representation. It’s no secret that the fashion and beauty industry has come under fire for its limited representation of race, body type and gender, as well as criticism of the use of photoshop and image doctoring. Virtual influencers go that extra step in purporting unrealistic ideals and stereotypes consumers are already subjected to daily. If users are concerned about the effect seeing a heavily edited image of a ‘conventionally attractive’ social media star has on collective self-esteem, then being subjected to what is essentially a sophisticated group of Sims, could exacerbate the issue.
Both Shudu and Miquela’s creators have come under fire for peddling racial and ethnic ambiguity, whilst claiming to personify diversity. Brands and marketers should reflect on the messages using CGI influencers could send to the consumer, such as the notion that rather than making moves towards casting more mixed-race models from under-represented countries, we would resort to creating fake ones instead. Lil Miquela’s account is politically left-leaning, with regular reference to her support for causes including Black Lives Matter and trans charity Trans Lifeline. According to Dazed: “The use of racially ambiguous characters also gives brands the freedom to latch on to key woke messaging points about identity politics without having to deal with the often-messy reality that encompasses those difficult topics.” As consumers become more marketing savvy and averse to traditional methods of advertising, brands should not rely on tokenistic advocacy to satisfy public demand for diversity.
The arrival of CGI influencers could be the start of a domino effect that will shape the future of marketing. Indeed, brands are already employing chat bots to perform customer service and turning to simulated technology such as AR beauty booths to enhance user experience. If we were to peer into a crystal ball we may see VR catwalks, holographic accessories and user-generated avatars on the horizon. It may seem a little too Blade Runner for some readers, but these trends often follow an upward trajectory. Though brands should embrace certain technologies that add value for the consumer, they should be wary of the ethical challenges that CGI influencers pose to an industry that should be built on transparency and authenticity.
Influencer Intelligence reached out to Lil Miquela directly, but her representation declined to comment.