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These influencers aren't flesh and blood, yet millions follow them

Virtual influencers come with an advantage for the companies that use them: They are less regulated than their human counterparts

Tiffany Hsu | The New York Times 

Bella Hadid (left), an influencer on social media, and her digital counterpart Miquela Sousa in a Calvin Klein commercial
Bella Hadid (left), an influencer on social media, and her digital counterpart Miquela Sousa in a Calvin Klein commercial

The kiss between Bella Hadid and Miquela Sousa, part of a Calvin Klein commercial last month, struck many viewers as unrealistic, even offensive. Hadid, a supermodel, identifies as heterosexual, and the ad sparked complaints that Calvin Klein was deceiving customers with a sham lesbian encounter. The fashion company apologized for “queerbaiting” after the 30-second spot appeared online.

But Hadid, at least, is human. Everything about Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela, is manufactured: the straight-cut bangs, the Brazilian-Spanish heritage, the bevy of beautiful friends. Lil Miquela, who has 1.6 million Instagram followers, is a computer-generated character. Introduced in 2016 by a Los Angeles company backed by Silicon Valley money, she belongs to a growing cadre of social media marketers known as virtual influencers.

Each month, more than 80,000 people stream Lil Miquela’s songs on She has worked with the Italian fashion label Prada, given interviews from Coachella and flaunted a tattoo designed by an artist who inked Miley Cyrus.

Until last year, when her creators orchestrated a publicity stunt to reveal her provenance, many of her fans assumed she was a flesh-and-blood 19-year-old. But Lil Miquela is made of pixels, and she was designed to attract follows and likes.

Her success has raised a question for companies hoping to connect with consumers who increasingly spend their leisure time online: Why hire a celebrity, a supermodel or even a social media influencer to market your product when you can create the ideal brand ambassador from scratch?

That’s what the fashion label Balmain did last year when it commissioned the British artist Cameron-James Wilson to design a ‘diverse mix’ of digital models, including a white woman, a black woman and an Asian woman. Other companies have followed Balmain’s lead.

Fable Studio, which bills itself as ‘the virtual beings company,’ created Lucy, a cartoonish character able to read and respond to viewers’ reactions in real time. The company says it makes digital creations “with whom you can build a two-way emotional relationship.”

Xinhua, the Chinese government’s media outlet, introduced a virtual news anchor last year, saying it “can work 24 hours a day.” Coca-Cola and Louis Vuitton have used video game characters in their ads. Soul Machines, a company founded by the Oscar-winning digital animator Mark Sagar, produced computer-generated teachers that respond to human students. Last month, YouPorn got in on the trend with Jedy Vales, an avatar who promotes the site and interacts with its users.

Edward Saatchi, who started Fable, predicted that virtual beings would someday supplant digital home assistants and computer operating systems from companies like Amazon and Google. “Eventually, it will be clear that the line between a Miquela and an Alexa is actually very slim,” he said.

Virtual influencers come with an advantage for the companies that use them: They are less regulated than their human counterparts. And the people controlling them aren’t required to disclose their presence.

Many of the characters advance stereotypes and impossible body-image standards. Shudu, a “digital fabrication” that Wilson modeled on the Princess of South Africa Barbie, was called “a white man’s digital projection of real-life black womanhood” by The New Yorker.

The Federal Trade Commission acknowledged in a statement that it “hasn’t yet specifically addressed the use of virtual influencers” but said companies using the characters for advertising should ensure that “any claims communicated about the product are truthful, not misleading and substantiated.”

In a way, virtual influencers are not so far removed from their real-life predecessors. It’s no secret that the humans who promote brands on social media often project a version of daily life that is shinier and happier than the real thing. But when a brand ambassador’s very existence is questionable—especially in an environment studded with deceptive deepfakes, bots and fraud—what happens to the old virtue of truth in advertising?

Bryan Gold, the chief executive of #Paid, which connects influencers to companies, said virtual influencers could lead companies into “a dangerous area,” adding, “How can consumers trust the message being put out there?”

But the concerns faced by human influencers—maintaining a camera-ready appearance and dealing with online trolls while keeping sponsors happy—do not apply to beings who never have an off day. “That’s why brands like working with avatars—they don’t have to do 100 takes,” said Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit and the self-described grandfather of the virtual influencer Qai Qai.

“Social media, to date, has largely been the domain of real humans being fake,” Ohanian added. “But avatars are the future of storytelling.”

©2019 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Tue, June 18 2019. 21:54 IST