Back in the day, entire advertising agencies existed in Second Life. The connection between virtual worlds, characters and branding goes back to these first online platforms and worlds. Lonelygirl15’s YouTube vlog, which turned out to be a prank, remains an iconic example of such fake accounts and advertising ploys. Her audience and fans believed in her, but she was an actress all along. On relatively young platforms, such as Instagram, users are experimenting with the boundaries of visual media, and what it means to be real-time, and “virtual”.
Lil Miquela’s Instagram account has 1,4 million followers to date. She often posts pictures of herself in designer gear, strutting the streets and posing with other celebrities. Her photographs are highly stylized.
But the 19 year old Miquela’s an avatar; a CGI model created by Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou as a digital art project
Daisy Jones (Refinery 29) writes about the model as a critique on our contemporary media culture:
“Lil Miquela is essentially an embodiment of what we all engage in — highly stylized content masquerading as a documentation of reality — the only difference is that she doesn’t even resemble a real human being. But then again, how much do we? Our faces are also pushed through filters, our angles made just so, our skin airbrushed so that we don’t show the blackheads on our nose or the tired bags under our eyes.”
Miquela may be fake, but most influencers have a degree of fakeness. Their stylized pictures have an aesthetics of intimacy, but this logic is fraught. Most well-known influencers have entire teams behind them, and their supposedly intimate selfies and living room shots are entirely set up. Just like reality television shows, mockumentaries and tabloid stories, this is staged realness. Exaggerated. Fake.
She’s just a representation, or a simulacrum, to speak in Baudrillard’s terms. In his writing on postmodernity, the philosopher is concerned with the distinction between reality and the representation (the simulacrum). Simulation has overtaken today’s reality which consists of an abundance of brands and second-hand media representations of events. It becomes more and more difficult to see what is staged, and what is not.
Miquela embodies the postmodern, and her design worries us. Indeed, her “electric body” is so lifelike that its audiences get sucked into an uncanny valley.
“Are you human?” Many users ask below her posts. “Hey, robot.”
Branding & Game Characters
Of course, brands don’t have to create entirely new digital characters to market their products. To announce the Olympics in Japan, Shinzo Abe put on a Mario hat to promote the country, a campaign created by the marketing giant Dentsu. Japanese characters have a lot of marketing appeal – they are iconic, highly visual, and taken very seriously in Japan and beyond.
Virtual idol Hatsune Miku perhaps embodies these tendencies most of all. Fans can create their own songs for the character using the Vocaloid software. Her character image was designed by Kei Garō to promote Vocaloid software, but was increasingly added to. In the Vocaloid opera The End (2013), Hatsune Miku wears a dress designed by Louis Vutton’s Marc Jacobs
Louis Vuitton did not stop collaborating with virtual characters. In spring 2016, the brand cast Final Fantasy character Lightning as its spokesmodel for its “Series 4” collection. Lightning appeared in a number of magazine ads and videos posing with the collection of women’s clothing and accessories.
Lightning is the perfect avatar for a global, heroic woman and for a world where social networks and communications are now seamlessly woven into our life. She is also the symbol of new pictorial processes. How can you create an image that goes beyond the classic principles of photography and design? Lightning heralds a new era of expression. – Nicolas Ghesquière
This collaboration between a Square Enix character and Louis Vutton has potential, but it is not truly used. For instance, there is no overt reference to the games or its story world made at all. Lightning may be adopted as a heroine by Louis Vutton’s marketing, but at the same time she is stripped down to her bare minimum. She’s just a digital body. There is no ownership or story told here. This is just the surface level that we see – a character design.
These campaigns may be artistic, but they are far from groundbreaking. Their transmedia marketing does not wow me at all. In fact, I only see parodies that imitate established conventions in photography. They hardly go beyond them or redefine them. It’s even the case that these advertisements confirm the problems and biases in fashion culture – thin bodies, highly posed pictures, and handbags held in convenient places.
But these virtual influencers do make you aware of tendencies in our media culture. Much of advertising and branding is staged, and Lightning is no less of a Louis Vutton model than Angelina Jolie or Michelle Williams. Brands are perhaps best mediated by fictional and virtual characters that represent ideas and comments. This is why celebrity endorsement is highly effective as well. After all, it’s the connotations that we have with Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lawrence that count, not the real person.
I do wonder if there isn’t a more creative opportunity here. What can virtual models do, that humans can’t? What performativity does an avatar have that is unique to it? Miquela, step up your game.