Thursday, March 8th, 2018 | 10 min read
Influencer marketing has become an essential part of marketing budgets, and with good reason – businesses are receiving $7.65 on average for each $1 they spend on it.
Little wonder then, that more than half of luxury and fashion brands expect their influencer marketing budgets to expand within the next year, legitimizing many predictions of the growing popularity of influencers. And the benefits are crystal clear – one post by Beyoncé has an ad equivalent value of over $1 million.
But what if famous faces like Queen Bey somehow became dispensable? What if the idea of “celebrity” or influence, like so many other roles we consider human, can be automated?
Miquela Sousa, better known by her Instagram handle @lilmiquela, appears to be your typical influencer. The 19-year-old is Los Angeles-based, of Brazilian/Spanish descent, and works as a model and musician. One look at her Instagram feed indicates as much: an endless stream of outfit-of-the-day shots featuring Chanel, Prada and Vans; pictures of herself attending events with fellow influencers and celebrity friends; memes and inspirational quotes.
She even uses her platform to support social causes including Black Lives Matter and transgender rights. Her debut single “Not Mine” reached number eight on Spotify Viral in August 2017. All things considered, does it matter that Miquela Sousa is a virtual avatar?
Miquela is computer-generated — and refuses to reveal who is actually behind her intricately detailed, yet clearly artificial persona. And although one writer claims to have solved the Miquela mystery, an air of intrigue abounds. Why was Miquela created? By whom was Miquela created?
For now, these questions remain unanswered. However, those in the fashion industry are undeterred. Renowned makeup artist Pat McGrath recently announced Miquela as her latest #McGrathMuse, an honor previously bestowed upon Kim Kardashian West and Naomi Campbell.
If the campaign works for McGrath, other fashion brands will be left with food for thought. After all, Miquela’s impressive Instagram following offers brands a largely young target audience – Paper Magazine and Vogue have already featured Miquela on their platforms. However, computer-generated celebrities are far from a new concept.
In the late 1990s, musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett founded virtual band Gorillaz — a band whose visual identity consists of four animated characters, 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs.
Although Albarn is the only permanent musical contributor, Gorillaz albums and live performances feature collaborations from a wide range of artists. And despite being a far cry from Albarn’s most famous band, Britpop pioneers Blur, Gorillaz have enjoyed widespread commercial and critical acclaim, winning one Grammy Award and one 2018 Brit Award.
In 2013, Marc Jacobs, then-artistic director for Louis Vuitton, designed tour costumes for virtual avatar Hatsune Miku, a sixteen-year-old Japanese pop star who performs her concerts onstage as an animated projection hologram.
Miku was created in 2007 and sold as the face of computer software that allowed users to generate their own music, with her as the eventual singer. The virtual avatar took on a life of her own and since then, Miku has collaborated with singer-songwriter/producer Pharrell Williams, and supported Lady Gaga during her 2014 ArtPop tour.
My favorite digital pop star Hatsune Miku is opening The ARTPOP Ball from May 6-June 3! Look at how cute she is! http://t.co/XZr1nKGM2Q 🌟✨
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) April 15, 2014
Meanwhile, in 2016, Louis Vuitton enlisted video game character Lightning, a pink-haired heroine from the “Final Fantasy” video game series, for its Series 4 Spring/Summer 2016 ad campaign.
Both sides benefited from the collaboration. “Final Fantasy” gained mainstream attention beyond its countless players, while Louis Vuitton’s effort at “geek chic” showed that the brand is not afraid to push the boundaries of fashion and blur the lines between fiction and reality.
Louis Vuitton is not the only luxury fashion brand to have worked with Hatsune Miku. During his tenure as creative director of Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci designed an haute couture gown for Miku, who modelled the lace, Swarovski crystal and crocodile trimmed creation alongside Tisci in Givenchy’s Paris studio for American Vogue’s May 2016 issue.
The editorial was especially unique, and reflected the vast potential for CGI in fashion.
The success of computer-generated influencers to date poses a wider question: Should it matter to brands and publications if an influencer is computer-generated, if the avatar has the same influence on its following as that of a “real” influencer?
It appears that fashion brands are taking the future in their stride. Rihanna’s makeup line Fenty Beauty, named one of 2017’s best inventions by TIME Magazine, recently shared a striking photograph of computer-generated Instagram model Shudu wearing the brand’s lipstick Saw-C. Fenty Beauty joins a growing list of leading brands that have embraced computer-generated influencers.
Each of these CGI sensations raise intriguing discussions about what it means to be real in the digital era, a topic all the more pertinent in today’s environment of fake news, bots, and the rise of artificial intelligence.
In a filtered world where real is becoming fake and fantasy is becoming real, it is up to brands to balance ethics and reality in influencer marketing.
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