CGI Influencers Earn Crores in Sponsorships; But This 'AI Dream' Has a Dark Side
The Quint spoke to experts to understand why brands are moving towards AI-based virtual influencers.
Influencers have acquired a central role in social media economies and play a big part in consumer decision-making. Their unchallenged growth in mostly unregulated spheres has changed the way we think about brand deals and advertisements. But, a new contender has entered the digital arena and threatens to disrupt the status quo – the AI-enabled virtual influencer.
But these CGI avatars, that are on the cusp of going mainstream, may be disrupting something even more integral – the truth.
Rozy, South Korea's first virtual influencer, has fetched its creators more that Rs 6 crore this year, as per media reports. She reportedly has 8 exclusive contracts as well as over 100 sponsorships.
Rozy joined the world pretending to be a real 22-year-old woman in December 2020.
Interestingly, not only South Korea, but India also has its own virtual influencer – 20-year-old Nila, who made her debut on social media last month. She joins a growing list of digital influencers.
Propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, these digitally created avatars are threatening to overtake real social media influencers.
What Are Virtual Influencers? How Are they Humanised?
Virtual influencers are developed on a deep understanding of what is trending globally – for instance, what are people talking about, responding to online about the trending events, etc.
These influencers can engage and talk to multiple people at the same time and at an affordable budget.
Virtual humans are constructed via precise mathematical modelling to manipulate curves and surfaces and sculpt figures. The designers use vast amounts of data on human appearance and what structures attract more people.
Marketing 101: 'Build Your Own Influencer'
In a celebrity-driven global consumption culture wherein public role models shape and influence people’s product and brand choices to a great extent, the advent of new age technology-driven social media platforms has naturally set the stage for the rise and prominence of virtual influencers.
The Quint spoke to Nitin Sabharwal, COO, India Operations, Optimise Media, an influencer marketing company and Neha Puri, CEO & Founder, of Vavo Digital to understand why more and more brands are moving towards artificial intelligence-based virtual influencers.
Sabharwal explains that there has been a sudden shift from the physical world to the virtual world where more brands are choosing to conduct their campaigns and promotions online, with a view to target existing and prospective customers while generating buzz and awareness for their products and services.
He also believes that another major change is the democratisation of celebrity landscape itself.
"Unlike earlier, when mega film and sport stars used to primarily drive brand promotions and endorsements, the rise and growth of social media influencers has been a game-changing phenomenon, shifting the balance of power away from mega celebrities towards companies and brands. Now, the brands are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing influencers for a certain campaign," he said.
From micro to nano influencers – extremely niche following can be a great asset for any product of a brand as long as there is certain congruence and alignment between a particular influencer’s sphere of interest and public credibility and the type of the product or service that a brand is seeking to promote.
Meanwhile, Puri points out that virtual influencers are more affordable than real life influencers.
"For instance, leisure and tourism brands can simply edit the virtual model to any location they want to showcase and promote. This means no travelling, food, and other costs for brands. The avatars are versatile and customisable so the brands can use them as models and display their clothes, accessories and makeup! Again, there is no cost for sending the product," she explains.
"There is no limit in creativity with artificial influencers. Brands have no restrictions whatsoever and can turn them into whatever they want because they get all the creative control."Neha Puri, CEO & Founder, Vavo Digital
But This AI Dream Scenario Has a Dark Side
Perhaps the biggest issue with this technology is transparency. It’s not immediately obvious who owns or controls virtual influencers, which makes it harder to hold them accountable or understand their motivations.
Meanwhile, Sabharwal believes that there are ways in which it can be misused such as selection of an inauthentic or ‘misfit influencer’ for a product or generating false traction through fake numbers of followers.
The rise of virtual influencers allows companies to “easily manipulate” children and threatens to damage their wellbeing, according to Internet Matters, an online safety campaign backed by internet service providers and social media companies.
“A child needs role models but these role models are being created by marketeers. They aren’t real and create nothing but attention-seeking. They are grabbing attention and for what? They are not there to educate and empower; they are there to engage and they do that by making us feel afraid, angry and insecure,” said psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, an ambassador for Internet Matters, while speaking to The Guardian.
Ethical Dilemmas for Ad Industry
It is worth noting that virtual influencers are owned by the brands. This also implies that it can be misused by unethical promotions of the product that do not give any results.
Another major point to consider is the possibility of false advertising. As Gautami Kawale, an influencer and a content creator, rightly points out, the reviews will always be in favor of brands which is an 'unethical practice'.
Echoing similar sentiments Pranav Panpalia, founder, OpraahFx, told The Quint that being run and managed by thoughts of someone else comes with a responsibility.
The brand/designers managing these influencers should be highly neutral and objective. They shouldn’t force their thoughts, opinions, and judgments via the virtual influencer.
"There should be a separate body that audits the business ethicality of such influencers. As many brands will start funding and investing in such influencers, there are chances that these influencers would end up promoting one brand/product in lieu of more money, thereby not giving a fair advantage or opportunity to others"Pranav Panpalia, founder, OpraahFx
AI Influencers – The Future of Fashion Advertising in India
Sabharwal told The Quint that there is every reason to believe that virtual influencer marketing is set to grow in the country.
"India doesn’t only have one of the largest numbers of social media users, but also Indian users have been reported to spend maximum time on social media on an everyday basis," he added.
On the contrary, Rohit Agarwal, CEO of AlphaZegus Marketing, asserted that the authenticity a human influencer brings – the flaws and inconsistencies that make it feel personal and real is a critical factor, especially in India. A recommendation is taken more seriously if it feels personal and real and because of that, it might take a long time for virtual influencers to be accepted in the country, he added.
But given the speed at which AI is growing in India, Panpalia feels virtual influencers will be a reality soon.
"Seeing the craze for fictional superheroes and characters in the country, I believe that India will be a great market for such influencers. From Amul girl to Chota Bheem, every fictional character has sold products quite effectively. Likewise, all we need is good storytelling, brand building, and great designers to make it an effective model for influencer marketing," he added.
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