Virtual influencers: how digital popstars conquered the masses

In 2018, Instagram sets the stage for the feud between Brazilian influencer Lil Miquela and blonde, Trumpian Bermuda. But neither of them actually exists: it’s just the latest frontier in influencer marketing, i.e. using people created from scratch.

Virtual influencers: how digital popstars conquered the masses

In 2018, Instagram sets the stage for the feud between Brazilian influencer Lil Miquela and blonde, Trumpian Bermuda. But neither of them actually exists: it’s just the latest frontier in influencer marketing, i.e. using people created from scratch.

In the Hugo Award-winning, highly acclaimed science fiction novel The Dark Forest (2008), Chinese writer Liu Cixin pictures the protagonist, astronomer Luo Ji, imagining his soul mate. Luo Ji begins by constructing her face, “her favourite foods, the colour and style of every dress in her wardrobe, the decorations on her mobile phone”. He finds himself spying on her as a child chasing a balloon that flies away, walking in the rain, looking at the ceiling on her first night at college. Until one day, suddenly, while they are in the library, she looks up and smiles at him. Was it Luo Ji who “asked her” to do it? Or as his human partner will ask him before she leaves, “she’s alive, isn’t she?”

The love story between us human beings and the non-existent, absent and perfect beings created by our minds is an ancient story, made of sighs, which takes on new tones as we move from writing to 3D modelling and from printed books to social media. In the very same months in which Liu Cixin was writing The Dark Forest, another ideal girl was born in Japan, who would revolutionize the history of transmedia marketing, surpassing the expectations of her own creators and becoming a sort of collective dream or participatory design of a virtual idol: Hatsune Miku.

Photo from a live performance by Hatsune Miku. For better visibility Miku's hologram is giant compared to human stature.

Hatsune Miku was born as the first of Crypton Future Media’s Vocaloid series: fictional characters designed to embody the actual product, a voice synthesizer.

Like the AI in the film Her (2013), another imagined soulmate, Hatsune Miku’s disturbing story is the story of a mascot that comes to life, making a huge evolutionary leap the moment it comes into contact with the internet.

Miku was designed to advertise the synthesizer to industry insiders, but the software, which allowed any user to create music with the voice of their heroine, meant that Miku quickly became a meme. Within months of its launch, all kinds of remixes, covers, and fan art could be found online, generated by users from all over the world.

Crypton suddenly owned the image rights of a goddess, who performed her first concert in hologram form in 2009. Since then Miku has sung with Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams, been a guest on the David Letterman show, and someone even managed to launch her into space. Miku’s ubiquitous, eternal, tireless persona has been used by Crypton to advertise a myriad of commercial products: from automotive and telephony to food and cosmetics, Miku has proven herself capable of selling Otaku from Japan and beyond not just her voice, but anything.

A few years passed before other media companies realized Miku’s potential. Or, more precisely, it was a few years before the dreams and imaginations of the rest of the world with access to the Internet were transferred to social media, and the average Western user reached a level of intimacy with the digital world that was even remotely close to that of the Otaku, giving rise to a new slice of the market, that of virtual influencers.

One of the first evolutionary leaps is that of Lu do Magalu, and it takes place on the other side of the Pacific, in Brazil. Lu was born in 2013 as a virtual anchorman for the YouTube channel of Magazine Luiza, one of Brazil’s largest retail chains, and his first appearance on the company’s Instagram (IG) channel dates back to 2015.

Lu’s personality, hidden behind a succession of posts alternating between dog food, candyfloss blenders, deodorant, lip gloss and flat screen TVs, is a monstrous hybrid of old and new, an untamed CGI, dug up from a TV commercial theme song and launched crudely on social media, condemned by his masters, like so many of his illustrated or human ancestors, from the Marlboro Man, to Betty Crocker, or the Kinder baby, to a life of branding. But in spite of all this, and perhaps because of it, Lu is today the most followed virtual influencer in the world.

Lu in her first emotional post, on the occasion of Brazil's elimination from the selection rounds of the 2018 World Cup. From 2018, perhaps following Lil Miquela's example, Lu will show more of her personality, especially on her TikTok channel.

Although they are polar opposites, Hatsune Miku and Lu share a common and fundamental trait. Fans love them because they are openly fake.

Fans love Lu because they see her as a simplified version of themselves, a subhuman being who slowly acquires a structure, following their learning pace. This is how Lu has managed over the years to take thousands of users, mostly Brazilian, by the hand and lead them across the river, converting them, in spite of themselves, to interspecies love.

Fans adore Miku because she is above human limits. To love Miku is to merge with her and the rest of the fandom into an Eden where anything is possible: when Miku sings that she has wings, two beautiful wings appear behind her back. At concerts she appears as a giant hologram reminiscent of the last Blade Runner, a dream goddess capable of orbiting to the edge of the atmosphere of the planet Venus.

On the contrary, users have shown they hate CGI influencers who are too human. An almost physical refusal, alternating between anger of being deceived, fear of one day being replaced by something similar but better, and perhaps even more disappointment at seeing “the harsh light of reality”, as Liu Cixin would write, shining mercilessly on something that should be fantastic, an unwanted dawn.

The first case of shitstorm for excessive realism rained down on a poor CGI composite named Aimi Eguchi and dates back to 2011. A scandal still remembered in the idol world, because it coincides with the ultimate betrayal, the betrayal of fans.

Eguchi is presented, in pictures, as a new member of the J-pop group AKB48. The huge girl band is the main attraction of Akihabara, the Electric City, a district of Tokyo consisting almost exclusively of shops selling action figures, trading cards, anime, hentai and manga, an Otaku paradise. In the AKB48 theatre fans can not only follow, as they used to do on reality shows and today on IG and TikTok stories, but also to “meet real idols everyday”.

From Weekly Playboy magazine, Japan's Playboy, one of the photos from the feature introducing Eguchi Aimi as the new human member of the AKB48 group.

After appearing in the Weekly Playboy magazine as the “Ultimate Love Bomb”, and in a television commercial for the confectionery company Glico, Aimi begins to arouse suspicion in her eager fans, who are eager to meet her in person. Glico is finally forced to reveal the brutal truth: the lethal weapon designed to crush the tender hearts of otaku for good is actually a Frankenstein, CGI-composed using the features of six human AKB48s. A puzzle made from the best pieces, a macabre story that brings to mind the words of the philosopher and psychoanalyst Lacan: “I love you, but because inexplicably I love in you something more than you, the object petit a, I mutilate you”.

Image from the campaign of the Japanese confectionery company Glico. Eguchi Aimi's fictional identity was composed using the ``best parts`` of six other human components of the AKB48 group.

The elephant that until now has remained hidden between the lines, the glitter and the little hearts, begins to loom over this short article as well as over the young phenomenon of the CGI influencers. Whether idols are human or virtual, in this love story between idol and fan, between avatar and user, there will always be a Iago, a Don Rodrigo, a third wheel: the media company.

It is said that media companies enslave virtual idols. It is also said that virtual idols are created by media companies because enslaving a virtual idol is easier than enslaving a human idol. It is said that media companies created virtual idols in order to guard ad eternum the ultimate key to marketing: seduction. It is said but where is it said? On the web. And if you thought this love story was complicated, here we are now stepping into a more complex level of transmedia storytelling: it was said on the web and media companies listened, and reacted accordingly. This is how we could describe the birth of Lil Miquela.

Lil Miquela and Blako, another Brud product, pose with their two creators, Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, in a photo from Lil Miquela's personal account, @lilmiquela. In the post, which dates back to July 2018, Miquela states that she has forgiven them.

While in Japan Kizuna AI (2016), the first and most popular virtual youtuber of all time, inaugurated her channel and Louis Vuitton made Lightning, the avatar of Final Fantasy, wear her clothes, thus consecrating virtual testimonials to the mainstream, the first shy image of Lil Miquela was posted on IG by hands unknown at the time.

One of the billboards from Louis Vuitton's ``Series 4`` campaign for the launch of its spring/summer 2016 collection, featuring Lightning, the female character from the video game Final Fantasy XIII, as the star and sole testimonial.

Posts on the IG account of Lil Miquela, presented as a 19-year-old American girl of Brazilian origin, are few in the first year, but at the end of June 2017 something happens. Miquela starts posting almost every day and after only two months she changes her look, turning into a more elaborate and expensive version of herself. That week her first single is released, lauching her presence on YouTube and Spotify, and leading Billboard to compare her to Gorillaz and Hatsune Miku.


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Un post condiviso da Miquela (@lilmiquela)

From this moment on, it is clear that a team of professionals has been created behind her, from 3D artists, copywriters and music producers to marketing experts and social media managers. Miquela seems to be headed towards a career as a musician and testimonial, she engages in crowdfunding campaigns, the first product placements appear, and a collaboration with Paper Magazine that ‘breaks the internet’. But it will be an ‘IG drama’ that will finally get her into the one million followers range and mark the clear difference between her and the Japanese virtual idols.


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Un post condiviso da Miquela (@lilmiquela)

On 17 April 2018, Miquela greets her fans by saying that “much sooner than they think” she will release a new song. An anticipation often used to grab followers’ attention and keep them glued to the following posts. The next day however, in a turn of events, her account was hacked by another CGI influencer: Bermuda. The 48 hours that followed are a masterpiece of transmedia storytelling, and contain all the lessons learned from the experiences told so far, including post-truth, whitewashing and fiction within fiction.

Bermuda is the perfect antagonist for Miquela, a Donald Trump supporter, white, blonde and a mall-lover. Miquela’s account was invaded by Bermuda’s posts. Bermuda accused Miquela of misleading fans by pretending to be a real person. In the meantime, the culture war that divided social media, with Trumpists and white supremacists on one side and the liberals supporting the respect for minorities, on the other, continued in the comments on the posts and in blogs that spread the news, in a mix of performance and reality, making Lil Miquela’s followers skyrocket.


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Un post condiviso da Bermuda (@bermudaisbae)

48 hours later Miquela managed to regain possession of her account, and confessed: she is not human, her masters lied to her. She also reveals who they are: a small agency called Brud, founded by DJ and producer Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, whose life before Brud is completely shrouded in mystery. It later turns out that Bermuda is also a Brud creation.

This operation, which in fact corresponds to the launch of Brud, is a true deus ex machina, designed to relieve Miquela’s character of the sins of the media company that created her. The most frequent criticism made to Miquela, namely that of misleading many users, especially teenagers, who believed her to be a real person, is resolved with a touching confession. She did not know. The blame is shifted to her creators, including that of having been constructed as a stereotype of wokeness, in order to profit from the image of black women. By disagreeing with Brud’s choices, Miquela achieves the false autonomy and purity necessary to win back the hearts of her fans.


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Un post condiviso da Miquela (@lilmiquela)

In the age of post-truth even fiction has a double bottom line. Trevor and Sara themselves seem to be testimonials, screen characters designed to hide who is pulling the strings of this virtual puppet. As will be revealed by Techcrunch: Brud is backed by various Californian and New York venture capital funds, including the Amazon Alexa Fund.

Miquela emancipates herself from branding, showing a new style of marketing. From April 2018, virtual influencers, including Lu, will make a further evolutionary leap, reminiscent of Glico’s attempt with Aimi Eguchi. What is disruptive advertising if not a more elaborate form of betrayal?


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Un post condiviso da Bermuda (@bermudaisbae)

Having dropped the need to fuel the culture war bait, today Bermuda describes herself as a #GirlBoss #MondayMotivation business woman, while her rendered preset look covered in basic bitch vests, has turned into the most sophisticated and cutting edge look possible, a slap in the face to human beauty standards that Bermuda is not afraid to hide. After months of simulated independence Miquela made up with Brud as her fame grew, from collaborations with Prada, Calvin Klein and Samsung, to interviews in Vogue, Buzzfeed and Highsnobiety.


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Un post condiviso da Bermuda (@bermudaisbae)

Miquela’s influence extends beyond her being a CGI influencer. Following her example, from 2017 onwards the Olympus become increasingly populous, including among others the African-looking model Shudu, a debated figure who cost her creators, male and white, accusations of blackface, or the more successful experiment of Noonoouri, a vegan with a focus on sustainable fashion, now the exclusive testimonial for Vogue China and Vogue Me, and Imma, the first Made in Japan version of a virtual IG influencer, also chosen by Ikea for a campaign, with which we close our circle.

A photo from Shudu's personal profile, @shudu.gram. The 3D influencer presents herself as the world's first digital photo model. Her creator, the British Cameron-James Wilson founded Diigitals Agency, the first digital modeling agency. On the agency's website you can find all sorts of gibberish about the empowering of African women, but the fact that Shudu had a master, moreover human and white, did not please many.

The business of virtual influencers, which for obvious reasons has grown strongly during the pandemic, is estimated by Bloomberg at $8 billion for 2021. Someone even founded a blog, called Virtual Humans, where you can find interviews, rankings and gossip about the new virtual humans, present and past. Aside Bloomberg’s projections, it is still difficult to predict whether the era of CGI influencers is destined to last long or is just another buzzword encouraged by marketing to generate hype.

We will probably look back one day and figures like Miquela, Shudu, Bermuda, will seem even more rudimentary and stereotypical, or perhaps we will find ourselves following Lu – who a few months ago launched herself into raising awareness on political issues such as fake news and conspiracy theories – in a thrilling electoral campaign for the presidency of Brazil, a bit like in the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment”.

The question remains as to how this love story would have gone if the third wheel, the master and jailer, the media company, had not kidnapped the princess or poisoned the prince, or blinded the goddess, mutilated the angel and so on. To find an answer, we just have to keep on fantasizing.

Opening image: Lil Miquela, the virtual influencer created by Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou, founders of Brud.

Silvia dal Dosso is a researcher in new technologies and Internet subcultures. She is the co-founder of the collective Clusterduck. Since 2016 she has been in contact with various communities of 3d artists, those who have the power to give a digital form to their dreams, populated by asexual, polysexual, colorful, bestial, absurd, ugly, beautiful, meaningless bodies and figures. For the writing of this article she would like to thank in particular Doreen A. Rios and Mara Oscar Cassiani for their suggestions, Francesca Del Bono who discovered the first creatures, and Pietro Ariel Parisi aka Superinternet, generator of beautiful worlds.