Artificial intelligence / November 13, 2023

The future of influence is virtual

June Kinloch

June Kinloch

Project Manager II, TELUS Wise

Teenage girl scrolling social media on a mobile phone.

Have you heard of Lil Miquela? She’s one of 2023’s hottest influencers. She has three million followers on Instagram alone (as well as presence on other social media platforms including X, YouTube and TikTok). Brands including Calvin Klein and Prada have done endorsement deals with her. And she’s even released a few music videos including Speak Up, which launched in 2020 and has 7.1 million views on YouTube and counting.

And guess what? She’s not real. Not really human that is.

Lil Miquela is a virtual influencer – a robot powered by AI. She was created in 2016 by Los Angeles-based software company Brud. And it turns out that virtual influencing is big business. According to Medium, Brud is now worth $125 million, thanks in large part to Lil Miquela’s growing popularity, and yes, influence.

What is a virtual influencer?

Virtual influencers, also known as digital influencers or AI influencers, are digital personalities who exist primarily in the world of social media. They look, act and talk like real people, but they have “creators” (usually a marketing agency or brand) who craft and evolve their back stories, personalities, preferences, passions and experiences.

The goal is to connect with consumers and influence their opinions through highly stylized content. Creators of the most popular virtual influencers (with millions of followers) make money through sponsored posts and brand campaigns.

The Influencer Marketing Factory conducted a study in 2022 to find out just how much influence these digital personalities have. The company polled more than 1,000 respondents across the U.S. 75% of respondents aged 18 – 24 follows at least one virtual influencer. And 65% of respondents bought a product or service promoted by a virtual influencer.

Pros and cons

Many leading brands, including Amazon, Prada, Dior, Calvin Klein and IKEA have turned to virtual influencers to headline specific campaigns. Virtual influencers are an attractive proposition for a brand. They are a more cost-effective option than human influencers because there are no logistics or travel costs involved. Campaign owners also have more control over content (no celebrity egos or opinions to manage).

But because virtual influencers aren’t real, what they portray – their lifestyles, body image and opinions – aren’t necessarily realistic either. Take Lil Miquela as an example. She’ll never age, get a pimple or have a bad day. She’ll always be wearing the latest and coolest clothes. And her body image will likely be unattainable for most of her followers.

Virtual influencers are also peddling products and services they haven’t tried or tested. While they may be showing off the latest, cool sneaker, they can’t really describe how it feels to walk in or what it looks like with certain outfits.

Advice for parents

While there may be some social advantages to interacting with virtual influencers, it further blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s not. Becoming so reliant and comfortable with virtual interactions can impact kids’ emotional resilience and the interpersonal skills required when engaging in the real world.

What can you do to support the kids in your life as virtual becomes the future of influence?

  • Meet kids where they are: as digital natives, the blurring between IRL (“in real life”) and online is all kids know. They just engage and interact differently. Seek to understand the value of their experiences rather than judge them.
  • Have open conversations: first, kids were exposed to unattainable lifestyle, beauty, relationship and connection standards from human influencers with filtered photos and content. With virtual influencers, those standards are now not even real. Explain to the kids in your life that people aren’t perfect. It’s our uniqueness and imperfections that make us special.
  • Participate with your kids: things in the virtual world are changing all the time and changing quickly. Get curious. Educate yourself. Find a virtual influencer that seems interesting and consume their content together - discuss what is likeable about them, what makes them appear real and what isn’t realistic about what they’re saying and doing.

It’s important to remember (and remind the kids in your life) that virtual influencers exist primarily to make money for their brands and their creators. So critical thinking is a must. AI will continue to change how we behave and interact online, blurring the lines between our real and virtual lives. Educating kids and giving voice to both their excitement and concerns will go a long way in helping them thrive both on and offline.

To learn more about critical thinking and ethics related to AI, check out the new TELUS Wise® responsible AI workshop, developed in collaboration with CIFAR and test your knowledge with this Understanding AI in our Daily Lives Kahoot!

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