In late October, the world reacted with bemusement to Kanye West’s gift to wife Kim Kardashian on her 40th birthday – a creepy, deep faked hologram of her late father, Robert Kardashian, making jokes, dancing and affectionately telling his daughter he watches over her every day.
As if Kim’s birthday celebrations weren’t already so divorced from reality – with the billionaire taking her friends and family to a private island so that they could ‘pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time’ – Kanye’s gesture went one step further to confirm the Kardashian clan has more money to burn than they’ll ever need, and are consequently living in a fantasy land.
Predictably, a flurry of memes which highlighted the absurdity of gifting a virtual replica of a deceased father circulated social platforms. I got a good laugh out of the whole thing, and much like everyone else, was incredulous that something so bizarre and unnerving could be considered ‘the most thoughtful gift of a lifetime’.
As it turns out, the idea of virtual humans, and their capacity to evoke very real emotions from human beings, isn’t so divorced from reality after all.
Tech is already heavily embedded into our lives to assist with daily tasks: Alexa and Siri are particularly relevant examples. The natural next step was always going to be virtual humans that, for all intents and purposes, look and sound like real people who provide assistance and even provoke emotional engagement. The very existence of Robert Kardashian’s hologram, and the emotional response it garnered, reiterates the reality of our digital present.
With this in mind, the concept of a human hologram suddenly isn’t so laughable. We no longer need to imagine a world where humans interact and engage purposefully with virtual humans - they’re no longer a concept that exists in fantasy land, or even a product of the far-off future. They are already here and increasingly moving into the mainstream.
Virtual Humans and Advertising
The implications of Virtual humans are already being realised and embraced in business and advertising, particularly in the form of virtual influencers. VIs are defined as fictional computer generated ‘people’ who have the realistic characteristics, features and personalities of humans (reference).
With more popping up every week on Instagram, and prominent digital influencer companies being valued at up to $125 million, VIs are tipped to completely redefine business and advertising.
But what’s the appeal?
There are many; despite VIs not being real, this hasn’t prevented the very real infatuation of people from around the world who eagerly follow their ‘lives’. Some of the most popular virtual influencers have already reached well over the million-follower milestone, which has opened up the potential to reach large audiences. There are even case studies that show engagement metrics on virtual influencers beat out sponsored posts by ‘traditional’ human influencers.
Flexibility, multi-channel reach and brand consistency are other notable drawcards of VI marketing. After all, an artificial human is less prone to error and much easier to manage and mould than a real human being.
The possibilities of virtual humans certainly doesn’t end with VIs. They are also being embraced to elevate tech product offerings and promotional campaigns. One need only look to the following examples to realise that virtual humans and VIs are already proving their value and are here to stay.
5 Examples of Virtual Influencers
1. Barbie’s Youtube Channel
Mattel embraced the personal appeal of YouTube stars by turning their very own Barbie into one too. On the official Youtube channel, a virtual Barbie touches on many topics such as makeup tutorials, nail art designs, life advice and even racism and white privilege in the highly viral and celebrated video ‘Barbie and Nikki Discuss Racism’. Barbie is personable and provides actionable content that appeals to children, teens and adults alike, consolidating the Barbie brand as one that is much-loved and multi-generational.
2. Lil Miquela
Known as one of, if not the very first VI to be created, Lil Miquela is also one of the most popular with 2.8 million followers and counting. 19-year-old Miquela shares her latest fashion looks and new music releases, which are available on Spotify.
Attesting to her popularity and high degree of engagement, which is recorded as being on par with that of Selena Gomez and Beyonce, Lil Miquela has snagged high profile collaborations with brands such as Samsung, as part of their 2019 #teamgalaxy campaign. She was even listed within The Times’ ‘Most Influential People on the Internet’ in 2018.
3. Alone With Me – The Weeknd x Spotify
In August, Spotify launched the immersive and personalised microsite ‘Alone with Me’ as part of its promotional campaign for The Weeknd. Users log in with their Spotify accounts and are greeted to an AI-powered The Weeknd telling them their favourite track of his and when they first listened to him. Users are then treated to an intimate performance of three songs from his latest album After Hours, all while he walks, sits in a chair or stares into the user’s eyes.
It’s all a little wacky, but cool – and given that COVID has put a halt to live music events, I wouldn’t be surprised if these kinds of virtual experiences continue to be embraced.
4. Neons by Samsung’s future factory STAR Labs
Apple has Siri, Amazon has Alexa and now Samsung are set to have their own virtual equivalent. However, unlike their competitors, Samsung’s virtual avatars are designed to converse and sympathise ‘like real people’ – effectively acting as companions. STAR Labs envisions people being able to license or subscribe to a Neon, with different virtual humans being able to offer different services such as a financial advisor, customer service advisor, healthcare provider or concierge.
If you’re wondering who would even use such a feature, take a look at Replika, an AI chatbot in the form of an avatar friend that has been downloaded more than 7 million times in 2020 alone.
5. The Colonel – KFC
KFC’s virtualised Colonel Saunders is younger and fitter than you remember him to be in the fast-food company’s short-term virtual influencer campaign. During this period, the CGI Saunders lived a glamourous lifestyle in which he was shown to balance his work, play, exercise and social life, all while adhering to the KFC brand and appearing with KFC-branded gear or foods.
Where to from here?
The growing prominence of Virtual Humans and VIs is hard to ignore, yet it isn’t a bandwagon trend nor should it be treated lightly. Unlike with the industry of human influencer marketing, which has had strict advertising disclosure guidelines imposed in recent years, these same rules are yet to extend to digital characters. For opportunistic brands, this creates a loophole to side-step advertising law. However, given that authenticity and transparency is king in the influencer world, the same degree of caution around influencer endorsements should be taken by brands and advertisers who are considering the use of VIs.
What’s more, while Virtual Humans and VIs may present plenty of exciting opportunities, they are only as good as the strategy driving them. The success stories of these technologies all have smart storytelling at their core.
Making machines humane may have once been considered a dystopian concept, yet we are now inching ever closer to this becoming a viable and sophisticated reality. While it’s undeniable that virtual humans and VIs will inevitably become a normality, it will be interesting to see whether ethical guidelines develop at the same pace to ensure they truly add value to our lives.
Virtual Influencers: What Are They & How Do They Work?
These Brands are Creating Humans – You Can, Too
Samsung’s artificial Neon humans are a ‘new kind of life’
Are CGI Influencers really the Future of Influencer Marketing?
Virtual Influencer Trends: an overview of the industry
Kim Kardashian, Virtual Humans, and how Weird Becomes Mainstream