Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the term ‘uncanny valley’ in 1970 and ever since it’s been the go-to phrase for describing the aversion most people feel to an object that almost resembles a human being, but is still not human.
The widespread revulsion directed towards the 2019 film ‘Cats’ is perhaps the best example of the uncanny valley effect. Despise that recent incident though, Mori’s hypothesis may need updating for one reason: virtual influencers.
While you're almost certainly familiar with influencers like Bella Hadid and Cristiano Ronaldo, what you may not know is that brands the world over are turning to influencers who don’t even exist to sell their products. Instead of provoking widespread gasps of disgust as ‘Cats’ did, these virtual influencers are becoming (for lack of a better word) influential in marketing, including for eCommerce brands. In fact, one of them even starred with Hadid in a campaign for Calvin Klein.
Where should we look for our definition of a virtual influencer? virtualhumans.org might be a good place to start:
“A virtual influencer is a digital character created in computer graphics software, then given a personality defined by a first-person view of the world, and made accessible on media platforms for the sake of influence.”
In simpler terms, a virtual influencer is a digital creation that acts like a real human being to perform the same things real influencers like models and sports stars do. The top virtual influencers have large social media followings and make money for their creators via sponsored posts. Their creators (parents? Agents?) are either a marketing agency or the brand itself.
The world’s most famous virtual influencer is Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela. A Brazilian-American 19-year-old woman, Lil Miquela was born (created?) in 2016 and started life as an Instagram account. Now, she has more than 3 million followers and has starred in campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein (in the video above) and Prada.
Beyond advertisements though, Lil Miquela has been ‘interviewed’ or profiled by some of the world’s leading publications, including The Guardian, Vogue, Buzzfeed, and more. With exposure like that, no wonder she has been estimated to make her creators about US$10 million per year.
Lil Miquela is just one example of the many agency-created virtual influencers, while there is also the ‘own brand’ version. One in-house virtual influencer who made a big impact was KFC’s Virtual Colonel. The virtual version of the brand’s iconic Colonel Sanders logo took over KFC social media to parody real influencers for two weeks in 2019 and his posts earned a whopping 151 million impressions. Finger lickin’ good, you might say.
Colonel Sanders like you've never seen him before.
So should you get a virtual influencer involved in your eCommerce marketing efforts? Let’s take at some pros of doing so to find out.
Companies hire influencers to do some of their talking for them, but when an influencer goes off-script, things can go wrong. Look no further than YouTube superstar Logan Paul and his infamous Japanese ‘suicide forest’ video. The outrage caused by the American’s insensitive video led to headaches for brands that work with him and for YouTube itself, which cut business ties with Paul.
With a virtual influencer though, you don’t have to worry about them going rogue. After all, Lil Miquela can’t exactly film a dead body hanging in a forest and post it on her YouTube channel - she doesn’t exist. Instead, everything she says and does is carefully scripted by the team behind her.
As well as mitigating risk, having total control over a virtual influencer can allow brands to get a bit more creative. You can put them in what would be risky situations for a real influencer and have them do things that a real person may balk at. For example, an Instagram model may feel above having their likeness used as a virtual assistant on your website, but a virtual influencer will have no such problems.
While top virtual influencers like Lil Miquela do indeed make millions of dollars per year, overall going virtual over real is a way to keep your costs down.
For one thing, you won’t need to shell out on photo shoots and all the accompanying costs that come with hiring an actual living being. Virtual influencers also, by their nature, have no restrictions in terms of borders or even being in more than one place at a time.
Christopher Travers, the founder of virtualhumans.org, explained to Bloomberg some of the virtues of virtual influencers, including how cost-effective they are:
“They are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term, are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die.”
It’s not all virtual roses, however, as there are some real drawbacks to going fake with an influencer campaign.
One of the advantages of using an influencer for a campaign is that the consumer puts some stock or faith in what they have to say, and will therefore be more likely to purchase a product they endorse. It logically follows then that if an influencer does not (or cannot) use said product, how can a consumer have faith in their recommendation? Lil Miquela can’t wear Prada on her non-existent body, while the Virtual Colonel wouldn’t have the physique he does by eating fried chicken.
Of course, authenticity goes beyond just using the product, after all, Kylie Jenner probably doesn’t drink a lot of Pepsi. The other piece of authenticity virtual influencers lack is encapsulated by Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley. The most sophisticated virtual influencers still don’t look quite human. While the success they have had so far shows that this is far from a fatal flaw, their appearance is likely still offputting to some consumers.
By now, it’s well known that the unrealistic body standards we encounter on social media every day have a negative impact on society. Half of women who compare themselves to the images they see on social media compare their bodies unfavourably. The problem seems to be even worse for teenage girls, as Instagram has made body image issues worse for one in three girls.
Virtual influencers, meanwhile, almost always have perfectly sculpted bodies and flawless faces. They’re never tired, never face any real adversity and always say the right thing. It’s worth questioning if your brand really should be closely associated with something that so clearly has a negative impact on a lot of young people. One could of course argue a similar point for real influencers, but the difference is in the degree of fakery involved. It’s one thing to edit out a few skin blemishes, creating an entirely fictional character is another kettle of fish.
Deciding whether or not to use a virtual influencer to promote your eCommerce brand is a tricky decision. Personally, this writer would much prefer to see his favourite brands associated with actual people. However, as someone approaching the age of 30, it’s important to note that I’m not the target audience of virtual influencers, and you probably aren't either.
For all your eCommerce needs you can contact us. We promise a living, breathing eCommerce expert will speak to you, not a virtual version.