Despite investment in virtual influencer campaigns by brands such as SK-II, Calvin Klein and Smart Car, some marketers still doubt whether a virtual character can forge a real connection with an audience.
Speaking at the The Drum Live, a new monthly magazine launch event hosted by the Hospital Club, Lore Oxford, global head of cultural insights at We Are Social, suggested that audiences may not yet be willing to fully engage with virtual content creators. She said: “We’re right in the middle of uncanny valley... it’s still an emerging space.
“People affiliate these platforms with reality and real people. There’s a soap opera element to social media, where we engage with all of these different people’s conflicts and stories – but I don’t know whether people are ready for those platforms to have fictional narratives on them.”
Oxford said people still desire authenticity from creators, pointing to recent stories of influencers accused of deceiving followers, such as the revelation that Instagrammer Caroline Calloway had produced much of her content with the aid of a ghostwriter and the Calvin Klein campaign featuring Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid accused of queerbaiting.
Andrew Jude Rajanathan, global director at Zenith, suggested that for now, the publicity gained by associating with popular virtual characters could outweigh audience reservations. He said: “You’ve now got the virtual world colliding with the real world. And you’ve got your brand front and centre.”
For Lucy Robertson, account director at influencer agency Seen Connects, virtual influencers aren’t currently able to produce “emotive storytelling“.
She said: “Part of the reason why people invest in influencers long term is if they see themselves in that person, and they really connect with their values.
“We’ve seen people like virtual influencers, like Lil Miquela... she did a vlog not too long ago talking about her experience of sexual assault. That’s a very traumatic and real human experience. And there’s something very kind of like cold and clinical about someone who isn’t real explaining a human experience. So I wonder, when it comes to that kind of emotive storytelling, how can we bridge that gap?”
The Drum recently unveiled its own virtual influencer, a digital character named Floresta, in partnership with Live & Breathe and the Virtual Influencer Agency (VIA). Dudley Nevill-Spencer, founder of VIA, suggested that audiences would engage with virtual influencers as entertainment, rather than documentary.
“The key is understanding that that character is not real,” he said. Then I think it’s fine to engage in those kinds of deep emotional stories. Effectively, it’s just another art form. The difficulty is when you don’t know if a person is real or not – that messes with your head.”
The Drum Live is a new event series that marks the launch of each issue of The Drum, held every month at the Hospital Club in London. Email The Drum’s events team to be notified about the next event.