The Dawn of Virtual Influencers
Social media influencers aren’t who you think they are. CGI models are the latest trend in influencer advertising.
We’ve all lost ourselves down the rabbit-hole of social media accounts. It starts with that girl you knew ages ago, takes a detour through the dark void of celebrity drama and ends with some random girl whose pictures are perfect. Somehow, this person has managed to take an Instagram-worthy photo everywhere she goes. Brands practically beg her to wear their clothing or write a glowing review about them. She gets paid to look great and hold a bag of tea that apparently makes you skinny. You envy her for a moment. Then you realize it’s been 45 minutes and you really need to re-evaluate your priorities.
Social media has broken the boundaries of influencing. An average person online can now endorse brands, promote services and create merchandise. As long as you post enough photos, get enough likes/comments and reach a certain following count, you can be a “somebody” online. Recent CGI technology has once again broken this boundary creating virtual influencers.
What used to be an innocent app for sharing photos has become a cesspool of narcissism littered with advertisements and brand sponsorship. With every refresh of our feeds, we indulge ourselves in celebrity feuds, controversy, scandal and brand boycotts. At the same time, a marketing team is creating a 6-week damage control plan.
But what if there was a better way? A way to ensure the perfect image, free of any flaw or scandal. Enter Lil Miquela, the forever 19-year-old CGI model and influencer with nearly two million followers.
Lil Miquela is a product of digital editing yet still claims to eat, have relationships, feel sad, hang out with other celebrities and have a genuine identity. Hell, she even has songs on Spotify.
University of Toronto professor, Brett Caraway believes, “the whole point of having an avatar is that you can have a virtual slave. You’re having someone who is not a person, something that is 100 per cent controllable that you can coerce.”
With the #BodyPositive movement, just moments behind us, virtual influencers are reigniting the conversation about beauty standards. Can we ever be as perfect as a computer-generated image? Probably not. One minute, we’re fighting for less Photoshop and equal representation and the next minute, we’re welcoming fully edited models into the influencing world.
Then there’s Brenn, a dark-skinned plus-sized model created by fashion photographer Cameron James-Wilson. But really, is that any better? Perfectly plus-sized and marginalized is a thing now too. Models like Brenn create unrealistic expectations of curvy offline. A person’s weight will fluctuate their entire life. For CGI models, weight is a trend. Brenn doesn’t represent plus-sized or marginalized women. She portrays what people want to see. Much like Brenn, equal representation doesn’t exist offline.
Objectification has been a persistent theme in the fashion industry and CGI designers are not above this trend. Lil Miquela’s creators, Brud, also created Bermuda who is often edited in hyper-sexual poses featuring very risque or suggestive captions. In a September post, Bermuda celebrated her birthday with a caption that read, “it’s my bday tomorrow so I’m eating cake/getting my cake eaten for the rest of the day.” Yikes. That pile of pixels represents and influences us? No thanks.
To think that men and women have collaborated in the objectification of women is pretty disheartening and sets back the hard work of others trying to transition away from this narrative. “Just the idea that somebody is stopping to construct a virtual body tells me that this will never get beyond objectification because it’s born out of the process of objectification,” says Caraway.
A CGI influencer is essentially a brand puppet. They never make a controversial tweet and are incapable of tarnishing a brand’s reputation. They don’t sleep, eat, or have an existential life crisis like you and me. They don’t sign contracts or make mistakes. They won’t get caught for workplace harassment or excessive partying. They are the perfect brand partner.
That being said, can their endorsements ever be genuine? Brenn was featured in a Smart Car ad on Instagram, yet she can’t drive. Lil Miquela says the Samsung Galaxy is the superior phone, but she can’t use one. To sum it up, their experiences aren’t authentic. For average people, posting this type of content is a harmless interaction with followers. For Miquela, whose every post is carefully curated, this is subliminal advertising.
Influencer laws are a new frontier at the Competition Bureau, and CGI influencer laws are virtually untouched. The Competition Act requires influencers to clearly state when a post is a paid advertisement and use hashtags like #ad, #[brand]partner #sponsored.
Competition and advertising lawyer, Steve Szentesi, says lawyers look for two things; false claims or misleading information. “If this avatar never actually used the product, and this is pioneering stuff, one could argue that the claim is literally false,” Szentesi said. “Technically, an avatar can’t use a product.”
Failure to disclose a material connection to a brand could also be argued as misleading. There’s just no way to know if Lil Miquela’s creators edited her into an outfit for monetary gain or if she’s just an art project worth $6 million.
Can we ever live the perfect life of a PR stunt? Brud bolsters three models, Lil Miquela, Bermuda and Blawko, in its arsenal of influencers. When asked about Lil Miquela’s legitimacy, founders Sara Decou and Trevor McFredries say, “Miquela is as real as Rihanna,” in their mission statement. The statements also reads, “story worlds have the power to introduce marginalized ideas wrapped in the familiarity of entertainment.”
This explains why the trio is continuously engaging in cleverly orchestrated fights for attention. By communicating with fans and appearing to have an identity, Miquela, Bermuda and the lesser known, Blawko, build a stronger connection with their audience.
Their personas are a mash-up of their creators’ who call this, “collective intelligence of diverse individual experiences.” Brud is only an early-stage venture company, but their marketing strategy is gaining traction from investors because of profitability. Everything and anything they post online could be part of an advertising campaign. Even a simple post of them with another celebrity.
Brud seems like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain of Lil Miquela. There’s just no transparency in who we’re following. Their second influencer, Bermuda, the raging Trump supporter, sharply contrasts Lil Miquela, but keep in mind they’re both funded and created by the same company. While someone may love Lil Miquela for her “diversity” and former “Black Lives Matter” bio statement, that person is also inadvertently supporting the opposition, Bermuda. By creating a left leaning and right leaning influencer, Brud has found a way to cater to two very different audiences.
A voice isn’t always given to who we might suspect. Take digital supermodel Shudu for example. What started as an art project for Cameron-James Wilson morphed into a smear campaign. At first, most were blown away by the sheer beauty of Shudu, whose design was inspired by the Princess of South Africa Barbie doll. Initially, she was valued by the black community. After the veil had been lifted and people realized that not only was Shudu CGI, but her creator was a white male, all hell broke loose.
Controversy surrounding Shudu begs the question, are people restricted to creating art within the bounds of their own ethnicity and gender? Art has never had those boundaries but do variables like monetization and influencing change the equation? Some are left wondering why we can’t give these opportunities to real women.
Professor Caraway believes that CGI influencers are a double edged sword. “I’m not saying that CGI influencers are a bad thing, they can be used in positive ways. I’m just slightly skeptical of how CGI influencers intersect with commercial interest,” he says. CGI influencers are no longer third party endorsers, they are an extension of the brand itself and this is evident with Brud‘s Bermuda and Lil Miquela.
Because Lil Miquela and other CGI are dressed up as everyday people, it can be harder to identify ad content. Professor Caraway says that it’s easier to entertain ads on behalf of indigenous communities, marginalized groups or individual artists. “If it’s in the service of an ad agency, or a smartphone, manufacturer or fashion company, I’m suspicious,” he says. People are entranced by the forever 19-year-old icon and quickly forget about the parent company crafting her every move.
CGI influencers seem to capitalize on niche markets and on a surface level, it can seem positive. When it becomes apparent that marginalized people and ideas are being used as a tool to cater to specific interest, the influencer becomes less authentic. When people realize that Bermuda’s racy photos and remarks are planned by a team to be deliberately attention-seeking, they become less interesting.
Social media is a directionless void. Politics, discourse and social movements are intertwined with commercial speech. It leaves the rest of us wondering who is worth listening to and now, with the addition of CGI influencers, who is it that we’re even listening to.
There is something intrinsically artistic about CGI models that borders creepy as they develop personalities. Whether we like it or not, Influencers are here to stay and the torch is being passed to CGI developers. Advertising agencies may be turning this spark into a forest fire, but we’ll just have to wait and see what emerges from the ashes.