“Virtual influencers are gaining traction with digital natives, like Generation Z and some millennials, but are still largely insubstantial with other generations.”
— Anjali Bal
Her sentiments were echoed by stylist Nolan Meader, who has styled front-row attendees at New York Fashion. “Why would a brand be dumb enough to pay to put someone that’s not real to wear something?” Meader said. “Not once have I ever watched a cartoon and said ‘I would love to have that cardigan they’re wearing.’”
Some experts believe that if virtual influencers are really to become a force to be reckoned with, they have to figure out how to appeal across multiple generations.
“I think the bigger question is if the market is moving to a point where virtual influencers can gain traction in multiple target markets,” Anjali Bal, an associate professor of marketing at Babson College, said. “The gravitas of any influencer, in any market is granted both by experts in that field and consumers within it. Functionally, this means to gain the same level of gravitas, the virtual influencers must start appealing more substantially to people of multiple generations.
“Virtual influencers are gaining traction with digital natives, like Generation Z and some millennials, but are still largely insubstantial with other generations. It stands to reason that virtual influencers will also gain traction with younger generations as they get older.”
Bal added, “There will be a time where what is considered ‘real’ will change by virtue of the metaverse, and digital native aging, opening the door for virtual influencers to increase their impact. But, I don’t believe they will ever replace real influencers, more likely exist alongside them. To date, virtual influencers have not gained widespread acceptance on the market. Many people don’t even know what they are.”
Of the benefits of virtual influencers, Christopher Travers, founder of VirtualHumans.org, said, “[Virtual influencers] never age, they never die, they live scripted yet human lives, they are brand safe, they speak to a generation who values anime and gaming, and from a fundamental standpoint, their 3D models can be managed by many parties, which allows this image to make dynamic appearances in commercials, on social media, live on stage, and in other places all at once.”
“I pray for the souls that would be influenced by a virtual influencer. I pray for a society that thinks cartoon images of ‘influential people’ are worth following.”
— Catherine Salfino
Todd Bacile, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University New Orleans College of Business, believes that virtual influencers are a natural evolution of technology, media, and branding.
“Brands may want to work with virtual influencers because it may be something that is efficient with resource,” Bacile said. “Artificial intelligence makes it possible for a virtual influencer to intelligently interact with hundreds or thousands of customers at the same time. Now, this would be something that would need to be set up ahead of time, but I can see the benefits of A.I. and virtual influencers to engage in one-on-one interactions with the masses.”
He added, “Regarding authenticity, I don’t think a virtual influencer would lose authenticity as long as it was consistent with what a brand stands for and represents. Tangible fashion brands have nothing to lose if they want to use virtual influencers, as long as customers know the persona is ‘virtual’ and the influencer aligns with the brand.”
Catherine Salfino, a columnist at Sourcing Journal who’s been attending NYFW for over 20 years, wants virtual influencers to know their place. “I pray for the souls that would be influenced by a virtual influencer. I pray for a society that thinks cartoon images of ‘influential people’ are worth following. Let the world implode before virtual influencers have a place at Fashion Week.”