Endlessly scrolling down your Instagram feed and wading through motivational posts and the profiles of those that appear to have a perfect life is the ultimate guilty pleasure in this increasingly digital age. The insatiable appetite for more content paved the way for influencers who inspired others to chase the illusion of the so-called Insta-Life.
However, the rise of influencer marketing appeared to bring out a dark side in some people. Some influencers started to show signs of entitlement and even demanded free hotel rooms for their trips. The inadequacy of scrolling through someone else's highlight reel was also blamed for damaging its users' mental well-being.
But deep down, we all know it’s a picture-perfect lie.
The arrival of COVID-19 and global lockdowns quickly grounded influencers who promptly saw their revenue streams disappear. By contrast, the global video gaming market accelerated to $170 billion. With nowhere to go or anyone to see, many spent more money dressing their digital avatar than themselves. With human influencers locked down, it was time for the virtual influencers to shine.
The rise of the virtual influencer
According to Business Insider Intelligence, brands are expected to spend an incredible $15 billion annually on influencer marketing by 2020, increasing $8 billion from last year. Virtual influencers are proving to be easier to work with and much more lucrative than their human competitors.
Even before COVID, Riot Games, the studio behind the esports game League of Legends, had the nice problem of serving 8 million concurrent daily users. But 2020 will be remembered as the year that the studio unveiled its finest creation, a "digital influencer and artist" called Seraphine.
With over 447,000 followers and 10x more engagement than your average human influencer on Instagram, fake influencers demand to be taken seriously by businesses.
Whereas Seraphine is clearly an animated character, the blurry line between fakery and reality looks set to disappear with the hyper-realistic characters' introduction. imma is Japan's first virtual model. She is easily identifiable with her signature pink bob, but it's not so easy for unsuspecting users that she is, in fact, a virtual character.
With a huge following, many will look on with envy at imma living her best life and collaborating with top artists and brands. But none of it is real. However, it is ironic that their human competitors actually sacrificed realness and authenticity in the first place.
The highest-earning virtual influencers
Lil Miquela is approaching 3 million followers on Instagram and nearly 600,000 followers on Spotify. The virtual artist is also expected to help generate $11.7 million for her creators this year after successful promotions with brands such as Calvin Klein and Prada. According to OnBuy, Miquela is the highest-earning virtual influencer and earns around £6,550 per sponsored post.
Shudu is the world's first digital supermodel who has even had an editorial published with the fashion industry website WWD. Her commentary is remarkably reminiscent of real-life supermodels. Elsewhere, UGG boot-wearing Bermuda is likely to be seen talking about herself and promoting Starbucks.
Blawko wears a mask that covers half of his face which appears to be inspired by the pandemic. The self-proclaimed young robot sex symbol even has an on/off relationship narrative with Bermuda. Whether the virtual influencers are able to remove the unrealistic beauty and lifestyle standards set by their human predecessors or if they are destined to amplify them is still up for debate.
Blurring the lines of reality
Virtual humans have a wide range of virtual influencers that brands can work with or even help businesses create their own. As we navigate these unchartered digital waters, there is an argument that we could end up unwittingly exploiting young audiences.
Back in 2017, leaked documents suggested that Facebook shared psychological insights on young people with advertisers.
The data teenagers were generating enabled the social network to identify when teenagers felt insecure, worthless, and most susceptible to a confidence boost from a brand.
When blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, the same data can be brought to life through believable virtual characters that their target audience can relate with.
Virtual influencers haven't entered the mainstream yet. But with millions of dollars and huge business potential, we can expect to see more and more computer-generated celebrities wearing real clothing labels and consuming the same brands as us on our social feeds over the next few years.
How did we get here? Ironically, our real-world has consisted of people dressing virtual characters rather than themselves and endlessly scrolling on their phones looking at the fake lives of others rather than talking to the person opposite them in a restaurant or bar. Our lives have been lacking reality for longer than many realize. It's just taken the rise of virtual influencers to wake us up to the realness and authenticity that we crave from our world.