The rise of virtual influencers has sparked a debate over authenticity and intent, issues that may impact brands who partner with them.
In simpler times, back in 2010, Hatsune Miku, a Japanese hologram, gave her first concert in Tokyo. The CGI pop star was ‘hired’ a year later by Japanese automaker Toyota to pitch the Corolla brand—not in Japan but in the U.S., where virtual concerts starring the blue-haired singer were staged in San Francisco and New York.
The integrated campaign for Corolla involved adding AR (Augmented Reality) functionality to the Toyota mobile app while Hatsune Miku took over the Corolla section of Toyota.com. Parties where thrown for Hatsune Miku fans, new and loyal, along with potential Corolla buyers.
The blue-haired anime-style character, cartoonish and clearly fake, didn’t raise any charges of cultural appropriation. However, that’s not the case with Shudu, the creation of a British photographer and digital artist, Cameron-James Wilson.
The virtual avatar is being billed as “The World’s First Digital Supermodel.” As black as her creator is white, Shudu has attracted almost 90,000 Instagram followers in less than a year. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty featured an image of her in its Saw-C shade of lipstick, sparking an outrage, while ‘she’ also has collaborated with Oscar de la Renta and Soul Sky brand.
“I am just a creative person, and to me she is what the most beautiful woman in the world would look like,” Wilson (who briefly created a male version but closed the account) defended Shudu’s creation to Harper’s Bazaar.
Another computer-generated model on Instagram, Miquela or @LilMiquela, has attracted more than 874,000 followers.
More patently fake looking, as if a CGI character in a video game, she has modeled for the likes of legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath and helped promote the fake Diesel/Deisel pop-up during New York Fashion Week.
“Virtual celebrities” have been around since the 1990s, when musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett founded virtual band Gorillaz. Cheaper than their human counterparts, will they displace living and breathing models—and someday have their own #metoo moment thanks to AI and demand better treatment and rights?
Some see virtual influencers as creative artistry; others as a slippery slope. While there has been some pushback on the practice of creating holograms of dead celebrities (known as delebs in the industry) by fans of entertainers such as Carrie Fisher, Prince or Elvis, for example, the rise of digital models as social media influencers is still in its early days.