No-one would blame you for not noticing the slow approach of CGI influencers. In fact, not noticing them is kind of the whole point. The ease with which they blend into the sea of vaguely famous and highly followed Gen Z faces is their calling card.
However, this sweep of marketable, digital faces are just the latest in a long line. It was 2000 when Lara Croft first graced the cover of Loaded (pictured, above right), being discussed in her own right, separate from the game from which she originated. Her ability to stand alone was an early inkling that a digital character could become famous in their own right.
Lara was followed by Hatsune Miku, a Japanese "virtual pop star" in 2007 – a visualisation that got more famous than the software it was built to represent. Most recently, Sophia – a demonstration of artificial-intelligence capabilities who was first introduced to the world in 2016 – had a brief stint in the limelight (pictured, above left). Seen in this context, the rise of CGI influencers right now isn’t anything radically new.
What is new is the context, which has never been quite right until now. Lara had the star power, but not the cultural infrastructure. Sophia had the cultural infrastructure, but was built for a singular purpose that made her less widely applicable and attractive for brands.
Now that there’s an entire "influencer" industry, the bar for brand partnership is considerably lower than it used to be and there are a bunch of digital characters not wedded to any purpose and ripe for use.
The marketing opportunity
This is probably the opportunity brands see: an endlessly flexible influencer with which to partner. New and shiny, never ageing, never sick, tired or double-booked. From a business perspective, it’s kind of a no-brainer, but the water starts to muddy when we ask if they’re fit for purpose or even if all these "pros" are particularly ethical.
The marketing problem
Influencers have clout because they’re aspirational in some way, but that status has to be established through a narrative about who they are or what they do (43% of global respondents cite authenticity as a key reason they trust influencers; 66% cite personalisation and relevance). CGI influencers don’t have these qualities, and although some of their creators have manufactured relationships and feuds to give them a bit of depth, they’re just that – manufactured.
Is it impressive how good some of these look? Totally. Amazing. But once the halo of novelty fades and people get accustomed to them, there doesn’t seem to be much more to connect to. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that they seem to have made the most inroads in the fashion industry, where the emphasis is more on aesthetics than story.
But, despite not being actual people, the roll-out of CGI in modelling has raised concerns. The fashion industry had a very long, very public struggle with diversity. It hasn’t gone down very well that, instead of hiring models from different backgrounds or with different body shapes, the industry is choosing to pay men for replicas. And this taps us towards our second question about ethics…
The ethical problem
It would be silly not to to consider the potential impact CGI influencers could have on the demographics they pastiche. The majority of those in circulation are women, most being women of colour. Capitalising on the likeness of these women for profit while simultaneously denying them access to opportunities and capital is exploitative.
The implications of bespoke made-to-measure people that can be whatever height, weight, race or opinion that brands want aren’t great and it seems that, in contrast to the continuing push to make brands more inclusive and fair to actual humans, this is making the human image more malleable for brands.
And there’s the sharp end of the issue. A lot of the controversy and critique that surround CGI influencers is due to their efforts to appear as or mimic real people and doubts about what happens if this becomes the zeitgeist and starts to skew focus from real people, whose stories we need to hear.
Also, the content landscape is saturated with cookie-cutter influencers and models, so creating new ones that aren’t differentiated in any way isn’t a sustainable strategy for longevity.
Creators must lean in to the fact that CGI influencers aren’t real and explore the limitless creative space that provides – without overlapping with the role of people (see Galaxia, above). If they embrace the artifice and become fantastic, rather than mimicking the unattainable, this could push the boundaries of what we consider modelling and influencing, where the model is as much a result of creativity as the products they endorse.
Carving out a niche is a win-win, achieving real cut-through for the influencers and the brands they partner by being something cutting-edge and unique – by being something far beyond imitation.
Ashley Alleyne is social media strategist at Rapp