The ethics of 'virtual influencers'

A snippet of this was included in Campaign Asia's article 'AI-Driven synthetic media: Too real for comfort?'

1. Do you think influencers generated with artificial intelligence (AI), like the example above, are likely to go mainstream? And are brands and consumers ready to embrace this next level of non-human media talent?

Comfortable with it or not, yes. Behemoth brands such as Red Bull, Android, American Express and Cadbury have already proven it doesn’t take a human to sell — by creating some of the most memorable animated ads of all time.

And the concept of virtual influencers isn’t entirely new. Despite not replicating a human, one of the world’s first virtual influencers, the GEICO Gecko, which was created in 2000 to sell car insurance, has underpinned a wildly successful campaign.

Whether it’s animation, AI, computer-generated imagery (CGI) or cartoons, from a business perspective, there are several reasons why advertising without using human talent is beneficial. There is less expenditure on labour, generally a huge saving on production costs, and fewer time delays.

Brands also have more control over messaging and the final output; advantages avatar influencers could potentially take to a whole new level. With virtual influencers, companies have the ability to create ambassadors that ‘perfectly’ align with their brand.

It is uncertain whether virtual influencers will be adopted on traditional platforms such as television, but there is plenty of online space for them to play.

Influencers are increasingly popular among businesses on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and WeChat for helping connect brands with new audiences. A whopping 93 per cent of marketers say they’ve used influencer marketing in their campaigns. There is certainly room for virtual influencers to grow in this context.

But Calvin Klein models (and influencers) can sleep soundly at night. We won’t be seeing a hostile AI takeover anytime soon. As with animation over the years, some brands and industries will make the leap to adopt virtual influencers, while others will ‘keep it old school’ with their human ambassadors.

In fact, emerging CGI advances are paving the way for human influencers to create their own lifelike avatar to sell to brands, which is an interesting revenue model in and of itself. So, brands might not get access to the human talent in real life, but only their CGI version, which the influencer then profits from.

Virtual influencers will not replace their human counterparts, but instead coexist.

2. So far, India is the only country to address virtual influencers in national advertising standards, requiring that brands “disclose to consumers that they are not interacting with a real human being” when posting sponsored content. Should there be more regulation?

Currently, some of the world’s most popular virtual influencers such as Lu do Magalu (who has a modest 5.9 million followers) or Miquela (3 million followers) are quite clearly robots, who could have been a Sims character in a former ‘life’.

However, emerging CGI technologies such as that used to create Pantheon Lab’s demo, indicate virtual influencers will soon look more lifelike than ever. This will make it important for companies to disclose whether or not consumers are interacting with an actual human.

There are already forms of regulation influencers must abide by. Under the Australian Influencer Marketing Council’s Influencer Marketing Code of Practice, influencers must disclose if they are being paid to share content. Virtual influencers should be held to the same standards.

The billions of young eyeballs trained to social media mean the influencer marketing industry should be treated as seriously as traditional forms of advertising.

Currently, influencers can sell alcohol and even tobacco on social media … heard of 'nicotinfluencers’? No? Okay, good. But they’re out there and it’s totally legal.

Worldwide, regulators need to be on the front foot with emerging social media trends to impose laws that protect consumers, like the advertising industry has done. Virtual influencers are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to ethics and regulation.

From a brand perspective, the current lack of regulation provides opportunities for organisations to take the lead in practicing social responsibility when it comes to disclosure. Transparency will play a huge role in brands’ ability to build trust amongst audiences, especially in the early stages of adopting virtual influencers.

3. What about ethical concerns when it comes to virtual influencers, such as decreased transparency around who is responsible for the content and whose moral values are being espoused. Should those things be made more transparent?

Yes, however we should also consider the fact that many forms of advertising or marketing have agendas, moral values and ‘ghost’ creators that are not disclosed.

Outside the public sector, there is generally very little regulation that says companies must disclose who has created or distributed content, and for what purpose.

Human influencers may be sharing content on behalf of a company, and promoting views other than their own. However, being identifiable generally prevents pushing views that may place them at risk — which can be a good thing when it comes to extremist agendas, for example.

We have already seen highly controversial virtual influencers emerge, such as Bermuda, the self-professed, pro-Trump robot created in 2018 to push alt-right views.

The robot influencer, which has 270,000 followers, has since retracted her support for the Trump administration, and now openly supports liberal views. This political ‘flip flopping’ to suit her creator’s narrative highlights the consequence-free nature of virtual influencer content and the complexity of disclosing moral values and views.

As with deepfake technology, virtual influencer marketing will pose the most risk when combined with other technologies and social trends. There is a risk of increased cyberattacks, accelerated spread of propaganda and disinformation, and decreased trust in democratic institutions.

4. What impact will virtual humans have on us? Is there a danger they might reinforce impossible beauty standards?

In 2020, Vogue sent shockwaves through the fashion industry with their cover that promoted body positivity, causing a ripple effect among brands and media alike.

Over recent years, organisations have been working hard to quash outdated and unrealistic beauty standards — albeit some more than others.

Brands do better when they use advertising to promote diversity in appearance, rather than selecting models who all look the same. In fact, studies show a 300 per cent boost in return on investment among brands that promote body positivity.

It is almost certain these consumer priorities will carry over to virtual influencer marketing — audiences are beyond tired of the ‘cookie cutter’ approach to hiring talent, and brands need to use these learnings when adopting new technologies.

But will virtual influencers ever wake up with a pimple, get wrinkles, put on weight, or change appearance in any way for that matter?

Brands that connect with their audiences win. If that means giving virtual influencers the occasional bad hair day, to remind us that neither life nor AI is perfect, I am here for it.

Article by Jasmin Hyde, Senior Account Manager, Icon Agency

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