Lil Miquela, Shudu Gram, Kizuna Ai… So many names that probably remind you of something. Their common points: they are influencers on Instagram and YouTube and are followed by thousands or even millions of followers … And they are completely virtual. Let’s take a closer look at this new type of digital 2.0 influencer, at a time when influencer marketing is starting to take hold.

Without bone or flesh

More than a simple term, influencer is today a profession. From the nano-influencer with up to 1,000 subscribers to the renowned mega-influencer to the million followers, it took years to establish this concept but above all to take influencers seriously. Today, they are the spokespersons of brands, conveying a positive image and highlighting them in their content.

This choice is based on the fact that the public more easily lends credibility to the words of these personalities they follow, ultimately considering them as their peers. But is it enough?

A few thousand kilometers from England, in the Land of the Rising Sun, a new trend is beginning to see the light of day.

Beginning to publish its videos in late 2016 on YouTube, Kizuna Ai attracted the attention of Japanese and South Korean internet users in early 2017. Its great feature: it was recognized as the first virtual Youtuber in the world. Indeed, if you go for a spin on its channel, you will come face to face with the animated avatar of a young girl straight out of a manga: angelic appearance, schoolgirl outfit, voice kawai (meaning cute in Japanese) and with artificial intelligence. It publishes content on its channel almost daily and masters all the codes of Youtubers. Today it approaches more than 3 million subscribers. This typically Japanese phenomenon has a name: that of Vtubeurs (or virtual youtubers).

Since then, many Japanese people have been involved, and have developed their own characters. The choice is wide: from the cute girl to this very strange geometric mass. Everyone finds their account. A report called Binary Skin – Exploring Japan’s virtual YouTuber phenomenon, deals with this phenomenon more than growing now.

Real trend or fashion effect?

It could have ended there. This was without counting on another innovative event dating from the start of 2016: the unexpected collaboration between Louis Vuitton … and Lightning. Her name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but that’s perfectly normal: she is one of the main characters in the Final Fantasy video game. Pink hair, described as loquacious and rather able to wear combat armor, which is to say that she is far from the standard muse that the audience could expect. However, it was to her that Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of the Louis Vuitton house and manga fan, thought of for his Series 4 collection.

An astonishing choice, which did not prevent certain journalists from endowing Lightning with a personality, even going so far as to interview the fictional character.

2016 is definitely a pivotal year because across the Atlantic, another phenomenon is brewing. In April of that year, Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela, published her first photos on Instagram. The girl posts what is most classic on this social network: her daily life, her friends, expresses her emotions, her political opinions. Originality: she is a virtual being in a very real setting. It is, what we call, a CGI (computer-generated image), realistic virtual character, or gynoid, humanoid robot with a feminine appearance. Later, Shudu, Blawko or Bermuda (like the Bermuda Triangle islands, not clothing) join it on the network and accumulate subscribers.

Large fashion houses and the world of beauty are popularizing these characters more and more and collaborations with brands are increasing. From the Balmain fashion house with the virtual top-model Shudu to the partnership between UGG and Lil Miquela, these personalities are considered to be real influencers despite their ineffective existence.

And confidence in all of this?

Therein lies the major problem of these influencers of a new species. It should be noted that the generation of 18-34 year olds is the most easily influenced. Faced with these smooth, polished images showing an ideal life, a first discomfort sets in.

Indeed, many complexes are unresolved in the face of fashion icons using excessive photo editing and the arrival of virtual models do not help the situation. In a world where “zero defect” prevails despite the emergence of some movements on the body postivism, Lil Miquela and others do not reassure the youngest regarding their physical conditions.

A study, conducted by asksuzy in the summer of 2018, collected the impressions of real consumers on these virtual influencers. 59% of those surveyed felt that the replacement of real models with 3D models was negative. The same panel of respondents answered 46% that even if the CGI showed more bodily diversity, they would not feel better.

Also, few of these people were able to differentiate between the gynoids and the real mannequin that were proposed to them in photos.

What do internet users think?

As for this last point, a long moment of uncertainty reigned in the minds of Internet users. Indeed, faced with so much “perfection”, many have claimed excessive retouching while others have questioned this far too perfect reality. In the case of Shudu, as soon as the bribe was revealed, many voices were raised. The model is black-skinned, many have pointed out the lack of diversity in the modeling world and criticized the creator of the gynoid, the artist and photographer Cameron James-Wilson, wondering why he had not simply recruited a black model for his photos.

Others, on the other hand, fully accept virtual influencers, integrating them perfectly into everyday life and believing that they lead a life similar to ours.

This raises the question of the relationship between brands and these influencers and the legitimacy of the relationship between the two. If we take the case of Millennials, they are very sensitive to the authenticity of the content they consult. Therefore, many people question the merits of the CGI opinions. Indeed, despite their status as icons, they remain fictional characters. They cannot therefore, for example, feel the fabrics of the outfits of the brands they represent. This can pose a real problem with regard to the credibility of the product they want to promote even if, on the form, it stands out well in image.

Another problem is that of building a real relationship between the virtual influencer and his community. If influence marketing has a particularity, it is that of wanting to build a real feeling of belonging of the user to a group. And difficult to create such a link when opposite, the representatives as well as the opinions are created from scratch.

And in England, where are we?

While in England, the issue of virtual influencers has not yet been raised, in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established that it does not matter whether the influencer is real or generated by PC, the rules of advertising apply the same way. Technology ethics lawyer David Polgar still asked the FTC to put in place guidelines for virtual models, the line between virtual and reality becoming blurred: “Maybe we have need more transparency, ”he says.

Until the wave of virtual influencers really impacts England, there is always the more reliable possibility of using real influencers to promote brands. For this, the best is to trust platforms specialized in the field such as getfluence.com. Bringing together the best blogs and influential sites, the platform guarantees a quality and serious relationship between advertisers and publishers. Here, do not worry about the content shared by the influencer because the production of it will be authentic. It is also possible for the brand and the influencer to discuss the content and approve it before its validation.

So rather than trusting an uncertain trend, bet on safe stocks by choosing getfluence.

Article written in collaboration with getfluence.