In today’s day and age, it’s not uncommon to login to Instagram to find a feed riddled with photos from influencers—one is trying to sell you a teeth-whitening LED light, another “the best conditioner in the world”. Brands have struck gold by incentivizing “regular people” to sell products to their friends by dangling free samples and one-month trials in front of their faces. And believe it or not, people are chomping at the bit to join this exclusive league of social-salespeople. While the number of IG influencers is undeniably on the rise, their presence is nothing new or terribly noteworthy.
It’s their new competition that’s making a wave in the social sphere.
Introduce the influencer robot. That’s right—Computer generated imagery (CGI) Instagram models and influencers are making a real dent in the way we think about marketing. And you should be paying attention.
Influencer Robots Simplified
These virtually-manufactured figures come equipped with three-dimensional identities, complete with hobbies, insecurities, friends…you name it. Not to mention the astounding degree of lifelike detail with which they’re crafted will make you do a double take. Let’s play: can you spot the bot?
Miquela appears on the 1) left 2) right 3) middle in these images
The star and sole bot in the three images above is Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela, a 19-year-old Brazilian-American model, musical artist, and influencer with over 1.4 million Instagram followers. The avatar was engineered by Brud, a secretive L.A. based start-up comprised of “engineers, storytellers, and dreamers” who work in artificial intelligence and robotics. In her various outfit-of-the-day posts, Miquela sports top brands like Chanel, Nike, Proenza Schouler, Supreme, Vetements, Vans and more—these brands “hire” Miquela to market their lines to millions of millennials—and by the looks of it, the investment is paying off.
How Did We Get Here?
This is not the first time in history that brands have leveraged digital characters as a marketing ploy—in 2013 Louis Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs designed tour costumes for avatar Hatsune Miku, a teenage Japanese pop star whose animated hologram accompanied Lady Gaga and Pharrell on stage. In their 2016 Spring/Summer advertising campaign, Louis Vuitton called on the pink-haired virtual heroine Lightning, a video game character from the “Final Fantasy” video game series to model their couture line of dresses, jackets and handbags.
However, where many fashion designers and luxury brands have used digital characters as a marketing gimmick, Miquela’s “independent” rise to fame (not affiliated with one particular brand) as well as her rounded-out persona and suite of friends allows users to engage with the character in a more intimate way and follow the narrative woven through her Instagram posts and stories as you might one of your closest friends. CGI personas like these offer brands an entirely new way to engage with consumers, and whether we know it or not, we are already feeling the impact of our virtual companions.
This all begs the strange but relevant question: how important is being human in today’s influencer culture? By the looks of Mi quela’s increasing pool of supporters (known as Miquelites) it would seem the answer is ‘not very.’ And while Miquela uses her power for good rather than evil (the star supports causes like Black Lives Matter, Black Girls Code and the transgender community) the idea that CGI influencers could be used for less wholesome purposes is not far-flung. Even more alarming, as CGI technology develops becomes more sophisticated, the lines between real and fake will continue to blur…leaving us to wonder—what is real, and what is not?