Influencers are real people, and they often come with real baggage. It might be the use of a racial slur on a livestream or participation in a felony bribery scheme. Either way, some influencers have scored massively negative attention that’s imperiled their brand deals and thrown their corporate collaborators into panic mode. Is virtual influencer marketing a solution to the all-too-human fallibility of social media stars?

Cartoons to the Rescue

Scandals involving influencers are now a normal part of the pop culture conversation. From PewDiePie and Logan Paul to Olivia Jade Giannulli, big-name YouTubers and other social media stars have made headlines for missteps and social faux-pas. The tearful apology video has become a genre unto itself. Chances are that this trend is here to stay — so long as influencers are real people who can make major mistakes.

Virtual influencers are a non-human alternative that may prove appealing to some brands. These “personalities” are entirely fictional. They’re paired with animated images from digital artists with the ability to accurately recreate the subtle features of a human face.

With the right approach, and with contracts and morality clauses, brands may find that working with a virtual influencer proves to be a smoother experience. A virtual influencer can’t go off script or get in trouble in its personal life. The only words it can say are things you dictate, and it doesn’t have a personal life from which scandal can spring.

Tracking the Backlash to a Marketing Trend

A lot of investors and commentators are getting excited about the possibility of marketing with virtual influencers. It may be necessary to temper some of that enthusiasm. There’s still resistance to the idea of virtual influencers. KFC even managed to launch a successful ad campaign in April 2019 based almost entirely on mocking the concept of a virtual influencer. That this kind of backlash can gain traction says something important about potential future success in using virtual influencers.

People are often resistant to change. There may be some anxiety involved with the idea that a virtual simulation can simply come in and take the place of a real personality. We don’t yet know how artificial intelligence and other human simulations will affect our lives, and that can naturally lead to resistance. It could also be that any backlash against virtual influencers is temporary.

That’s not to say that potential backlash is the only thing to worry about in using virtual models for an influencer campaign. Circumstances surrounding virtual influencers can create headaches for corporate PR departments. For example, Fenty Beauty, Rihanna’s makeup brand, used a virtual model named Shudu Gram in some ads. Some of the brand’s fans were upset to learn that the digitally created African model was made by a white artist. This raised questions about cultural appropriation.

Another virtual influencer known as Lil Miquela is drawn so realistically that she veers into uncanny valley territory for many people. So while there are some distinct upsides to working with a fake person, there are some potential drawbacks too.

Should You Use a Virtual Influencer?

Overall, it’s a good idea to plan carefully before you move into the realm of virtual influencers. Look at what others have done that has worked well, and take time to research your strategy. Understand that certain audiences, particularly Gen Z, may be more receptive to virtual influencers than others. If kids and teens aren’t your target audience, then you may want to focus on a different influencer strategy.

It’s also worth noting that not all virtual influencers need to look like people. If you think your market might have some uncanny valley discomfort with humanoid characters, consider something more classically cartoonish like an animal. Cartoon characters were successful marketing campaign faces well before the advent of digital technology so powerful it can create an entire person from nothing.

The frontier in this area isn’t entirely new, but there’s a lot of room for discovery. If you have the ability to experiment, see what kind of campaigns you can create with a virtual model at the helm.

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