It turns out that the new face of US teen retailer Pacsun isn’t new at all.
Lil Miquela, the virtual influencer who first appeared in 2016 and went on to work with brands like Prada and Calvin Klein, will be at the helm of Pacsun’s holiday and back-to-school campaigns this year. Known simply as Miquela now, the self-described “19-year-old robot living in Los Angeles” had largely faded from major brand deals, even as she has amassed 3 million Instagram followers.
Now he’s back in the thick of a branding campaign and, depending on how you look at it, the timing puts Pacsun ahead of the curve, rather than a few years behind.
The hype around the metaverse seems to have reignited interest in virtual influencers. The idea first took hold for a brief moment around 2018, the year Miquela took over Prada’s Instagram account to promote its Fall/Winter Milan show. Another CGI influencer named Noonoouri was making appearances for Dior and KKW Beauty, while Shudu, a “digital supermodel,” became the central figure in Balmain’s “virtual army.” (With a slightly different approach, Gucci recruited a physical robot for a campaign on China’s WeChat.)
However, they often appeared as novelties and, although they have appeared occasionally since then, they have not taken over the works of the Hadids and Jenners of the world. As convincing as they may seem, they remain visibly contrived, throwing them into uncanny valley territory and undermining the authenticity that followers are presumably looking for in influencers.
But they have been growing in popularity among younger audiences in countries like South Korea and China, where virtual idols are already estimated to generate billions in business.
As more brands now move to virtual spaces like online games and envision a future internet where we navigate as digital avatars, virtual ambassadors have another look.
Is it suddenly the right time for brands to hire virtual faces?
Pacsun, which has been expanding its brand into virtual worlds, said it will partner with Miquela for her next steps in digital spaces. Last year, Prada introduced its own virtual muse, called Candy. And in a surprise move, Dapper Labs, the company behind popular NFT projects like CryptoKitties and NBA Top Shot, has acquired Brud, the maker of Miquela. While she doesn’t aim to create more virtual influencers, she does look to use what Brud learned about building communities and Miquela’s experimentation to inform other products she’s making.
Even so, it’s probably still too early to expect the general public to follow virtual figures the same way they do human ones.
“We miss the mark if we believe this is a genuine attempt to [use] a virtual influencer to then drive consumer behavior at this point,” said Johan Kristensson, head of creator success at LTK, a global influencer marketing platform. “I think this is an early advantage play to generate interest.”
Many brands are in the process of experimenting with immersive worlds, NFTs, and other technologies as they try to develop best practices that they can use in the future. They won’t always get it right, which carries risks for image-focused fashion companies, but also reminds of the costs of being late in adopting new tools like e-commerce and social media.
One remaining question, however, is whether audiences can develop the same relationship with a completely artificial, even photorealistic, character that they build with human influencers. This “pseudo-friendship” stems from who the influencer is as a person, according to Kristensson, which is why he says LTK doesn’t try to shape an influencer’s creative direction. Is it possible to reproduce that with a virtual figure?
“Today that sounds crazy,” he said, but added that it could be possible “over time, as we get more comfortable living in a virtual space.”
It’s easier to imagine virtual influencers becoming more prominent if the metaverse that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg envision comes into existence and the average Internet user spends much of their time embodied in a digital avatar. There would be no obvious difference between the look of a computer generated character and the avatar of a real person. It could even open the door to virtual influencers who aren’t trying to be human. Instead of looking like Miquela, he might look like a bored monkey.
But that’s still a long shot at the moment and would require some big advances in mixed reality technologies to even come close to being feasible.
For brands, virtual influencers can offer the advantage of being totally controllable and, in theory, not getting caught up in scandals in their non-existent personal lives. But the lives of the people we follow are essential to making us want to follow them in the first place.
For now, virtual influencers are likely to remain less popular, and less effective at generating sales, than the humans we can relate to, or at least envy, with rich or messy lives, and increasingly even day jobs, that exist outside of social media