Real or Robot? The Rise of Virtual Influencers

A recent article in the New York Times discussed the rise of virtual influencers — online characters created for the sole purpose of partnering with brands. Although it may seem like something out of a sci-fi novel, they’re already proving to be commercially viable.

Miquela, one of the best-known virtual influencers, has worked with Calvin Klein and Prada, has 1.6 million followers on Instagram and 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. For comparison, this means that she has a larger audience — on both platforms — than Jerry Seinfeld.

She was created by Brud, a secretive design studio that claims its products “create a more tolerant world by leveraging cultural understanding and technology.” Miquela mostly partners with consumer brands, but she does dabble in advocacy. Last year, she spoke out in favor of reuniting separated families at the U.S.’s southern border, and a recent pro-choice Instagram post garnered 100,000 likes.

The advantages of a virtual influencer are obvious: they have the potential to reach audiences as large or larger than human influencers, offer unparalleled message control, and won’t cause controversies that could damage partner brands.

But Miquela can’t show up at a protest or testify before Congress. She can’t speak with the weight of personal experience. She cannot, by definition, tell a true story.

These differences matter, especially in the digital age. Authenticity and truth are absolutely essential for nonprofits, and partnering with a fictional character who exists to sell products could jeopardize the very core of an organization’s existence.

Virtual influencers also go against a central fact of our biology: people trust people. Whether it’s a testimonial from a real person or a celebrity endorsement, our brains are wired to respond to other humans and their true stories. That’s part of the reason why word-of-mouth continues to be such a strong driver across segments.

And for all her elaborate backstory, Miquela and her digital companions are little more than elaborate mannequins. They do have influence — any account with 1.6 million followers has a powerful audience — but they are probably best suited to building awareness for consumer brands. For nonprofits and other purpose-driven organizations, virtual influence still can’t replace the real thing.