Virtual Influencers: Our youths future peers

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Image courtesy of Balmain: Margot, Shudu and Zhi - Balmains Virtual Influencers:

"Anyone and everyone is always welcome to join Balmain army's growing ranks — they need only share our bold spirit of adventure as our new virtual icons”

Nov 12, 2018

I’ve been working with Virtual Influencers (VIs) for a couple of years now and been writing articles defending them for the same amount of time. To date there are few supporters in the marketing industry for VIs and lots of detractors.

I certainly understand why our Industry is uncomfortable with them - often for the same reasons that individuals are frightened of any new tech - but I also think our industry is failing to understand what is happening with technology in terms of AI and the way we communicate, and this is one issue which has seen large swathes of the Industry completely blindsided and overtly judgemental.

People I respect really don’t like the idea of VIs and think they will be some small, dark dystopian side alley of marketing. I however believe the opposite, that they will become a dominant area of marketing, that almost all brands will use and that this outcome is inevitable.

Below is a precis of a piece I wrote about 6 months ago in response to this article in Adweek. Pretty much all of it still holds true and i’ve been motivated to repost it due to the recent deluge of negative articles I have seen on Social about VIs.

At its core, I think it’s like this. VIs will become a dominant force in influencer and direct marketing comms for four reasons. (1) There is no risk for brands. (2) They will be able to engage with ALL their followers, not just 4% - imagine 50% to 60% engagement rates. (3) They can respond to how you feel, based on your personal data, (and eventually physical data such as blood pressure and cortisol levels) regardless of time, location or attitude - they are always on. (4) Our children will never know a time when they can’t ask an AI for help, these AI “assistants” will normalise the conversation and emotional bond between humans and machines and in that context, having a relationship with a VI will seem normal.

And they don’t have to affect you negatively, if i have things my way we will sign up to a code of ethics and they will have a positive psychological effect on us and our children - more on that later.

And lastly, human influencers often suck, Kim Kardashian and her diet suppressant lollipops (see below), KSIs brother telling Kids to commit violence on Jake Paul, KSIs bullying behavior, and on and on. We humans are often violently immoral. VIs will be controlled by humans. they are not immoral, it’s the humans behind them, so if we regulate the VI manufacturers (in a way we havn’t done with YouTube stars and Instagram) the problems should be largely avoidable,

Any thoughts on the above or below please let me know, discussion is the fuel of genius..



Precis from an article first published by Dudley Nevill-Spencer on June 12, 2018.

There was an opinion piece in Adweek on May 15 about Virtual Influencers (if you haven't seen a "virtual influencer" then check out "lilmiquela" on Instagram .  The article is a strong criticism of Virtual Influencers, it states that;

"..artificially creating personalities poses a massive potential risk to the future of culture and media", and .."they are not good for influencer marketing, social media and culture as a whole".

My opinion is that not only should Brands engage and create AI powered Virtual influencers, but that they will grow in importance and relevance and become a dominant marketing channel, far from running from them, we should be embracing them and working to create an infrastructure and legislation around them that is ethical and positive for our culture.

The article has three specific critiques which I outline and counterpoint below, but they can all be summed up in 2 words "human nature". Tech, as always, is an amplifier of human nature. It can be used for good or bad, it's not the tech that’s bad but the people behind them, and that’s what I think is missing in the critique of what I believe will be one of the biggest movements in marketing in the next decade.

Critique 1) Unrealistic expectations: Article critique number 1

"Computer-generated graphics are intended to be flawless and not have any imperfections, … they create unrealistic expectations about what beauty, style and culture looks like. This can lead to serious implications for young people—in their formative years of their life—who look to social media stars as key influences, …and virtual influencers will further perpetuate these issues".

"Unrealistic expectations" is not a tech problem it’s a human problem, amplified by media and tech. We've been airbrushing and photoshopping images of ourselves forever, it's just that now we all have the tools do so on our phones. Filtered images are ubiquitous, in this environment, knowing that someone is not real is EXACTLY what we need to help us understand that SM in and of itself is an enhanced environment.

Real people are damaging our children right now - no need for a virtual influencer - I would rather have an avatar we know is fake than a digitally remastered human pretending to be real?

I also hope one day we have AI's that can tag every image that has been enhanced, that's the kind of thing we need to help this issue. and reduce the unrealistic expectations.

Critique 2) Motivations: Article critique number 2

"When we look at these virtual influencers, we have to also consider who the parties are behind these personalities. ..The fundamental issue with a company running an internet personality is that it has one primary incentive: profits".

So the argument here is that we need to be wary of the motives of the people behind the Virtual influencers,  valid, but it's not a reason to not use Virtual influencers.  It misses the point, this is a human, not tech issue, for example, how good is this ladies motivation below?


Kim Kardashian advertising an appetite suppression lollipop - what a lovely thing to do to her young female audience, we already have so many serious body image issues but Kim doesn’t care about that, she just wants the money, that’s her motivation.

The point is that if someone's motivations are unethical then they are unethical, this is unrelated to Virtual Influencers and if we should or shouldn't use them. My feeling is that Virtual Influencers should be Blockchained so we know the parties owning and controlling them - I will certainly do that on all of mine, if anything happens that is unethical then there is a direct line of responsibility. 

Critique 3) Authenticity: The final critique is ;

“When a blogger or influencer endorses a brand on their social media account or blog, they review and try the products out and provide their honest opinions before they share this with their audience. Virtual influencers aren’t able to try on clothing brands, aren’t able to see what food products they like, aren’t able to know what beauty products work best on them—the best they can do is mimic what current trends are and provide inauthentic product endorsements. Virtual influencers offer no authenticity behind the endorsements they provide".

I have highlighted three points here.  1. Honesty: Lots of the opinions of Influencers are not honest... some are, some are not at all. Don't get me wrong, I have fought for years to focus on "Authentic Influencers ",  but Virtual Influencers wont exacerbate this problem. They are controlled by humans anyway who often just "mimic trends" - which is what lot of nascent real world Influencers do to establish their credentials anyway - so this is not a reason to not use VI's.

2. And then there is the question of in-authenticity.  Some Influencers do appeal because they are authentic, but lots appeal because they are not… Let's check out Kim K above (or almost any Social media Lifestyle Influencer, almost their entire lives is manufactured). Kim K makes her money by creating a "scripted reality" TV show, all her images are photoshopped, her entire life is false.

And at this level the truth is her audience doesn't care, they want to live her lifestyle.  Kim is what I call  a "Power Influencer", people aspire to live their lifestyle, most don't actually believe what they say? Ask any 16 yr. old if they think Kim K is authentic and they will laugh at you, they know it's not true, they also know she has a tonne of amazing opportunities and swag and they want it, but its lifestyle, not authenticity. Brands that use these types of Influencers tend to be ones that are seeking "aspiration" from their campaigns - clothes, make-up etc.

There are other kinds of Influencer's who are authentic - check out how I breakdown Influencers in my Influencer marketing Manifesto on this site. I split Influencers by the goals they can achieve for brands and the different ways they are perceived by followers - "Trust"  (authenticity) registers highly for "Local Heroes" and "somewhat with "Niche Influencers" - but not all inf marketing is about authenticity.

The key is the authentic BOND created between Influencer and follower, and that is something Virtual Influencers can do as well as anyone alive, this however is a subject for another post.

IN CONCLUSION:  Virtual Influencers are the future, there is nothing they can or can't do - good or bad - that isn't already being done  already by real world Influencers. The key is correct regulation and accountability.  I fully expect my daughter who is now 4 to be engaging with Virtual Influencers, powered by AI, in an environment that's regulated and will hopefully be of general benefit - that is certainly what I will be lobbying for. There will be bumps along the road but it's not something to be frightened of, its something to embrace and help shape and I advise all my clients to become fully engaged in them, and if your interested in getting involved in the creation of ethical VIs for your brand - drop me a note.


Dudley Nevill-SpencerComment