CGI influencers are computer-generated characters that use social media accounts in order to connect with real audiences through the Internet. Many of these influencers are created and built by teams of developers, designers, writers, and content creators. While this seems strange and novel to some, according to USA Today, “their existence is fake, but their influence is real”. These digital influencers are mainly used for advertising and for promoting brands and products on social media.
- 1 Lil Miquela
- 2 Impact on Advertising
- 3 Advantages of Digital Influencers for Brands
- 4 Disadvantages of Digital Influencers for Brands
- 5 Ethical Implications
- 6 References
One of the most well-known virtual influencers is Lil Miquela, who debuted on Instagram in April 2016, where she currently has 3 million followers. She was created by the L.A.-based startup Brud, which specializes in artificial intelligence and robotics as well as their applications to media businesses. Her identity involves being a 19-year-old Brazilian-American model and musical artist. On her Instagram account, she can be seen wearing real-life clothes by popular brands and hanging out with other real influencers in cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Since her debut, Lil Miquela has sparked different opinions from all sorts of people. Some are intrigued and curious, while others are shocked and alarmed. She has been described as a “Sims marketing stunt” as well as a “horrifying social experiment”, but the reality is that she is simply being used for advertising, and it is clear that she is one of the most influential digital avatars. In fact, the creators of Lil Miquela closed a $125 million investment round led by Spark Capital. Time Magazine ranked Lil Miquela as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet in 2018.
Impact on Advertising
Although some have speculated that these new digital influencers might start taking over jobs that are designated for models and those in the fashion industry, there is little proof that this will be the case. There are currently not that many virtual influencers, and their influence right now could be more due to shock value since they are so novel. Thus, it is unclear whether this influence will last over time, since shock value eventually fades.
Advantages of Digital Influencers for Brands
The biggest advantage of CGI influencers is that brands can completely control them as well as the environment with which they interact. With real influencers, they may express personal or political opinions and values that do not appeal to some groups of people. Although this may appeal to their own personal followers, this can be polarizing and harmful for brands' images. If an influencer is involved in a scandal, this would have negative consequences on any brands or businesses the influencer is partnered with. However, a digital influencer has much less risk of being mixed up in a scandal since they can be managed by their company. Additionally, another advantage is that digital influencers can be photographed with products anywhere in the world. Companies can design their advertisements to their heart’s content. Anything from their outfits to cosmetics to scenery to buildings can be programmed and added virtually.
Disadvantages of Digital Influencers for Brands
The flip side of the greatest advantage of CGI influencers is also their greatest disadvantage. Because they are not real humans and can be controlled however companies want to, consumers may be less likely to trust them. This can be troubling for brands, since the primary reason businesses partner with influencers is to gain more trust from consumers. While digital influencers can have influence and motivate social media users to purchase products or services, they cannot exactly replicate human influencers’ performance.
Another huge controversy is surrounding the supposed “diversity” of virtual influencers. In a Calvin Klein campaign, the brand featured a video where supermodel Bella Hadid made out with Lil Miquela, the previously mentioned virtual influencer. This received much backlash, as people criticized Calvin Klein for queer-baiting without even hiring a real queer person. Many pointed out that the role Lil Miquela played in this campaign could have gone to a real underrepresented group, but instead went to an assemblage of pixels with no real personal context. However, despite the controversy and debate this campaign sparked, it simultaneously dramatically boosted audience engagement for Calvin Klein. Thus, Calvin Klein may have still succeeded in using Lil Miquela to their advantage, regardless of whether the video of Bella Hadid and Lil Miquela was well-received.
Body Positivity and Transparency
With every new innovative product, controversy almost always comes with it. One major controversy regarding these digital influencers is that they are made out of pixels and can be created to be "perfect", while real models need to deal with societal pressure on them to be as physically perfect as possible. As such, many say that it is paradoxical how society is simultaneously trying to push forward the concepts of body positivity and self-love while making beauty standards even more extreme through these crafted digital avatars. According to a Fullscreen study, 42 percent of Gen Z and millennials have followed an influencer they didn’t even realize was CGI. The fact that many people cannot actually tell the difference between someone who is human and someone who is CGI has been pointed out to be problematic. Frank Mulhern, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, says that in the future it will be even more difficult to tell the difference between CGI and human influencers as technology constantly improves. Companies need to be more transparent about these influencers so that people don’t fall under the guise that these standards of beauty are attainable or even viable for the average human. Additionally, tricking followers into thinking these “people” they admire are real, only to have them crushingly find out later that it was all a lie, is not the best marketing tool either. They are better off, ethically and financially, just being transparent about their CGI influencers right away instead of having people discover the hard truth later on. 
Profiting From Cultural Ambiguity
Another concern regarding Lil Miquela, as well as other rising CGI influencers, is the commodification of cultural ambiguity. Miquela was specifically designed to appear culturally ambiguous so that she can fit into any community. From her face to her name, many different groups can identify and accept her as one of their own, and therefore, trust her more. She identifies as a half-Brazilian, half-Spanish, second-generation immigrant, working class, queer woman of color. Her highly curated - and highly intersectional - identity was a deliberate choice by Brud with the goal of appealing to Generation Z. It’s arguably unethical to use real peoples identities to churn out company profits, especially when it is likely benefiting people who don’t hold any of these marginalized identities.  Brud is estimated to be worth over $125 million and plans to expand its family of CGI influencers in the future. The market for influencers itself was estimated to grow $9.7 billion in 2020 alone. While this potential profit is great news for companies like Brud, the actual marginalized communities that Miquela claims to represent, won’t get a cent of it. 
Replacing Real Models
As mentioned previously, there is a chance that job positions may be taken away from real people because of the many benefits of using CGI models. CGI models don’t need to be credited or paid at all. They will never have sick days or scheduling conflicts. They also pose no threat of scandal or claim of mistreatment that could make the company look bad. They also lack the moral compass of a real human. Usually, an influencer or model will endorse a product, or not, based on their own moral standards and what the company itself represents. With CGI influencers, you lose human characteristics of choice and values. This might all be fine if it weren’t for the fact that these fake characters have a very real influence on people.