There has been a lot of speculation around the rise of CGI influencers within the media industry, particularly as we’ve seen Shudu, EE’s virtual stylist, recently stepped into the limelight at the BAFTAs this year. Instagram has been another leading platform for the growth in CGI’s popularity through the likes of prominent virtual influencer Lil Miquela, who currently boasts 1.5 million followers. Furthermore, as Instagram has launched its new shopping space, there is now even greater opportunity for CGI influencers to be more effective advertising vehicles for brands.Interestingly, Lil Miquela’s posts present a juxtaposition of herself alongside ‘real life’ people; this, along with Shudu’s recent presence next to ‘real’ celebrities at the BAFTAs, shows that the boundaries between the fake and the virtual are becoming increasingly blurred. Indeed, with concerns growing for many around what is real and what is fake, there has been a degree of uncertainty floating around about how we should interact with these virtual beings, particularly as we see them start to emerge more clearly onto the media platforms of our everyday lives.However, the notable rise in followers of CGI influencers indicates that it may last longer than a mere ‘fad’ or ‘craze’, and their popularity is reflective of a wider change in how people are starting to consume media. Actually, people are more open to following ‘non-real’ influencers online than you would expect.

Welcoming virtual influencers as a respite from reality

Interestingly, the virtual presents, for many, a sense of reassurance with its direct and simple message: what you see is what you get. Take Instagram for example. Many can attest to being subject to a constant stream of filtered images and videos from friends and family that are edited to reflect the best parts of their lives, leaving the user to often feel inadequate.

Therefore, a virtual influencer’s life, although pure fantasy, presents a respite from the ‘normality’ of altered reality, and followers know where they stand with something they know is completely fake. Indeed, recent consumer research conducted by Mindshare’s UK Futures division found that a third of 18-34-year-olds follow profiles on Instagram or Twitter that they know aren’t real.   The research further revealed that 54% of all UK consumers find virtual entities appealing on some level, rising to 69% for those who consider themselves informed about tech. This may be because they are already familiar with fakery online; nearly four in ten UK consumers feel that ‘everything on Instagram is fake to some extent’.

Clearly then, people are now much more open to following something they know is authentically fake, rather than an air-brushed image that perpetuates anxiety and insecurity.

Virtual entities are an asset

Although CGI beings are constantly plagued by negative coverage, research shows that there is a changing public perception towards them, which leans towards the idea of them being here to stay in the media landscape for the foreseeable future. It’s now possible to imagine a future where virtual entities are a significant part of the everyday media. For example, 20% of under 35s stated that they would prefer a virtual news anchor over a real one, and 43% of all UK consumers think that in the next ten years, virtual entities and holograms will be all around us. People are also more comfortable with the idea of virtual and tech entities that are designed to help us with functional tasks – three in ten would prefer a robot personal assistant over a human to organise their lives for them. Further research revealed that people responded favourably to the idea of using virtual entities – from pets to yoga instructors – if it helped them save money and time for example.  

The benefits to brands

From a business perspective, CGI influencers offer an abundance of opportunity. Brands are now starting to see the benefit of using virtual influencers as an advertising opportunity on Instagram, particularly now that the platform is integrated with e-commerce. Dior, for example, is linked to virtual influencer Noonoouri, who has over 270,000 followers. Similarly, Lil Miquela also partners with brands – wearing clothes from the likes of Proenza Schouler, Coach and Balenciaga, and recommending hair products from OUAI. Indeed, virtual influencers can offer brands and advertisers an open door to connect with wider digital platforms alongside traditional channels, resonating particularly with Millennials and Gen Z. With virtual influencers, the problem of brand misrepresentation also becomes a thing of the past, as the virtual don’t necessarily have minds and actions of their own to go ‘off brief.’CGI is undoubtedly grabbing headlines, with the glamour of Shudu and Lil Miquela currently taking centre stage. However, when digging deeper, it seems that the concept of virtual life influencing our media is starting to stick. With social media platforms and digital formats taking over traditional channels, there is clearly room for virtual influencers to ingratiate themselves and play an important influential role. It will be interesting to see if the public continues to view them as a fun novelty in the knowledge that they are ‘authentically fake’ and start to embrace them more deeply into diverse aspects of their everyday lives.
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