June 25, 2019

by Nigel Hollis

Lil Miquela posted her first Instagram post in 2016. Three years later and she has over 1.6 million followers. Not bad for someone who is not even real. Brands are increasingly using virtual influencers like Lil Miquela, but where does virtual brand ambassador cross over into brand deception?

Influencers are all the rage in some circles, but it seems that a few brands have realised that there are big risks attached to taking someone on to be their representative. There is upside to an association with a person with lots of followers: a chance to be endorsed by someone of interest, a person with values that fit your brand, and to be part of the latest cultural vibe. There is also a downside if your chosen ambassador is called out as less than authentic, as Anne Hunter notes in this post, or goes off the rails.

In her post, Anne asks whether brands might not hanker after the surety and consistency of brand icons of days gone by, like the Jolly Green Giant. However, it seems that today’s means of addressing the desires of surety and consistency is to create a virtual brand influencer. As Tiffany Hsu suggests in a New York Times article,

“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.”

Certainly no one would have imagined that the Jolly Green Giant was a real person and yet, Edward Saatchi, quoted in the New York Times article states,

“Eventually, it will be clear that the line between a Miquela and an Alexa is actually very slim.”

And it seems inevitable that at some point brand avatars will be indistinguishable from real humans, able to respond spontaneously and interact just like a real human.  According to Hsu, the Federal Trade Commission has yet to issue a ruling about the use of virtual influencers but states that companies using the characters for advertising should ensure that “any claims communicated about the product are truthful, not misleading and substantiated”.

If you ask me it is bad enough Siri suggesting that I use the word ‘please’ when telling it to go away, and it will only be worse when that rebuke is accompanied by a pouty face (for the record, I have now turned Siri off, I do not need yet another desperate AI trying to force its way into my life by purporting to be useful). People have little enough trust in advertising already, and when it becomes common knowledge that marketers are using virtual influencers indistinguishable from real people I suspect that that any remaining faith will evaporate. After all, as my colleague Ben Marshall notes, influencers only have any value because of the perception that they pick and choose what they endorse. If you create influencers that literally do exactly what marketers suggest then what’s the point?

For now, humans buy products and services, not technology, and hopefully they will remain the ultimate decision maker no matter how smart technology becomes. And I think marketers would do well to remember that, to quote various artists from over the years, “there is a fine line between love and hate”.



Leave a reply

Enter the characters shown in the image.