She has wrinkle-free, porcelain skin, her hair glistens in every type of light, and her eyes sparkle with joy all the time. She does what you want, whenever you want, and her smile never fades. She’s the hardest-working influencer a brand could ask for — she never sleeps, and she takes no breaks.
Her name is Ling, and she’s a social media influencer with more than 130,000 followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. She is also not real, but that hasn’t stopped her from netting ad deals with Tesla and Nayuki, one of China’s biggest bubble tea chains.
Ling guarantees a trouble-free experience for advertisers and marketers in an age of celebrity scandals and influencer controversies. Unlike the David Dobriks and Jake Pauls of the world, an AI presence like Ling is engineered to perfection down to the last wisp of hair on her head. Her ultimate selling point is that she brings absolute peace of mind to the brands she works for — something that unpredictable human celebrities and influencers could not possibly ensure.
Ling was created last May by Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) start-up Shanghai Xmov Information Technology and Beijing Cishi Culture Media Company, and is purpose-built to be featured in ads on any social platform, from Instagram to TikTok.
She’s a new breed of what the Chinese call “virtual idols,” which have become favorites among China’s major brands, particularly in light of high-profile celebrity scandals that have rocked the country. Most recently, labels from Porsche to Bulgari dropped Chinese megastar Kris Wu en-masse after authorities in Beijing arrested him on accusations of rape.
Wu was a fan favorite to front brand ad campaigns, which were estimated to have netted him upwards of $3 million each. But with his fall from grace, it’s easy to see why an AI-created spokesperson might be preferable to the real thing.
Moreover, it’s hard not to identify where Ling’s allure lies. Instead of filtering celebrities’ faces and photoshopping selfies beyond recognition to meet modern beauty standards, brands have now commenced with the vagaries of human imperfection. Ling is more perfect than even the most beautiful woman because that’s exactly what she’s been engineered to do.
Insider spoke to marketing experts and consumers to discover why virtual idols are taking off like never before.
Virtual idols are fast becoming a billion-dollar industry in China
The rise of virtual idols seems a logical outcrop of a social media industry built on pushing users further and further to the bottom of an uncanny valley. Facetune and photo filters have almost turned in on themselves, and it’s now not uncommon for women to pursue cosmetic surgery to turn themselves into IRL versions of the airbrushed, filtered photos they post on their social media profiles.
“Five or ten years ago, people might have brought in a picture of a magazine cover supermodel. Now they’re bringing in a picture of themselves but just in a slightly optimized way, where Facetune or a Snapchat filter will give them a millimeter more of a cheekbone projection, or a fuller lip, or a straighter nose,” plastic surgeon Dr. Laura Devgan told Vice in 2018.
All this unreality primed audiences for the rise of the virtual influencer. It’s tough to estimate just how much of the influencer market virtual influencers take up, but Bloomberg reported last October that Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer with 3 million followers on Instagram, makes around $8,500 for a sponsored post. And unlike social media influencers who were constrained by the pandemic and forced to stay in lockdown mode, Lil Miquela was free to work, even debuting a song at the online-only Lollapalooza last year.
Miquela, created by the marketing agency Brud, recently joked on her Instagram account that she was celebrating her 19 birthday — for the sixth time.
Virtual or not, Miquela is a wealthy 19-year-old. UK marketplace OnBuy estimates that Miquela earned around $11 million for her Brud last year, far beyond the average social media influencer’s annual salary of $46,703. Her earnings are a sizeable chunk of the $3 billion US marketers spent on influencers last year.
Virtual influencers “are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term, are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die,” said Christopher Travers, the founder of virtualhumans.org, in an interview with Bloomberg.
Virtualhumans.org catalogs the growing sphere of virtual influence — from the pig/man chimera John Pork to the “virtual diva” Aisha. Some are more lifelike than others. Nearly all present an idealized Instagram image — young, attractive, and thin.
But China’s AI sector is taking its AI idols in a different direction, creating influencers that can be customized to a brand’s needs.
The country’s first virtual idol was Luo Tianyi, a pint-sized two-dimensional animated girl with oversized eyes and a heart-shaped face who got famous for her cloyingly sweet voice and anime-style songs. Launched in 2012 and created by tech firm Shanghai Henian Technology Co., Luo has more than five million fans on Weibo. In her decade of stardom, she’s also achieved mainstream appeal, even sharing a stage with popular Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang in 2019.
And the industry is booming. According to a Bloomberg report from June, the virtual idol industry reaches an audience of an estimated 390 million people in China, with an accompanying animation and merchandise industry worth around $35 billion.
Chinese marketing research firm iiMedia Research estimates the virtual idol industry pulled in $540 million in 2020 from brand endorsements alone. The research firm charted the industry’s growth from 2017 to 2020 and projected a 70% year-over-year growth rate. This means China’s virtual influencer business could be worth close to $960 million in 2021.
It is unclear exactly how many virtual idols there are in China right now, but Insider estimates its numbers to be in the hundreds. Several big names have also emerged in the industry to rival Luo and Ling. Yousa, for one, is a virtual singer on Bilibili, the Chinese version of YouTube, who has more than 3 million subscribers. Also on Bilibili is Angie, a fresh-faced, piano-playing AI influencer with over 10,200 fans on Weibo.
Virtual influencers and idols are part of a ‘new breed’ of celebrity with ‘formidable star power’
May Yee Chen, an expert at the marketing research firm Wunderman Thompson, told Insider that while the idea of a virtual idol might have originated in Japan, it has taken off in China.
“We are seeing an evolution to more niche influencers with more specialized audiences that don’t fit the mega-influencer mold of Kim Kardashian,” Chen said.
“Virtual idols are just another variation in the increasingly rich digital world where we are all spending more time socializing, shopping, and being entertained,” she added.
Elison Lim, associate professor in the Nanyang Business School at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told Insider that virtual influencers and idols are part of a “new breed” of celebrity with “formidable star power.”
“Brands are drawn to the huge fan-base and influence that such virtual idols have on their followers. There is also a sense of novelty around virtual idols which is not only refreshing but signals tech-savviness for the brands using them,” Lim said.
Lim told Insider that virtual idols, compared to celebrities, have “obvious advantages” of being flawless and perfect in every way, from the way they look to their voices and personality. In addition, Lim noted that tech-enabled enhancements had made virtual idols much more lifelike and realistic, going from largely two-dimensional presences to 3D personalities.
“They are also immortal. These traits of perfection and immortality are highly desired and are aspirational to many,” Lim added.
No matter how lifelike these virtual influencers look, they’re still not real people. It’s a little scary.Gigi You
Lim noted that human idols are “naturally imperfect” and said that brands have become warier in using celebrity endorsers, who might be prone to missteps and scandals.
“Brands using troubled human celebrities could get implicated in such instances by association, and this could pose PR challenges that are difficult to recover from. Virtual idols, whose personas and ‘lives’ are decided and controlled by their creators, don’t have such problems and are therefore less risky endorsers,” Lim said.
But Lim noted that many AI idol creators struggle to strike a balance between robotic perfection and relatability.
Witness, for example, Lil’ Miquela “crying” in a bathroom, “mascara” running down her face.
“Human celebrities have the advantage of being real and complex and more authentic,” Lim said. “They have good days and bad days like normal humans, and this could make them more relatable to mainstream consumers.”
Consumers say human celebrities “keep it real,” but virtual idols have a ‘cool factor’
Virtual idols have long had an appeal across East Asia.
In Japan, for instance, v-tubing (or virtual YouTubing), where an individual manipulates a 3D avatar of themselves from a technical set-up called a “rig,” has increased in popularity in recent years. Popular Japanese v-tubers, called “Holostars,” are managed by an agency called Cover Corp. and can earn seven-figure sums from merchandising, ad deals, and donations from their subscribers.
They also offer creators safe ways to express themselves.
“Since there is the assurance of complete anonymity and the persona protects the talent’s private life, there is the feeling that the person behind the character can reveal more, rather than less of themselves, paradoxical as that might be,” said Singaporean student Bernice Lim, 21, a fan of Kageyama Shien, a virtual influencer who operates an avatar with furry cat ears.
—影山シエン🟣ホロスターズ3期生 (@kageyamashien) July 10, 2021
Stella Qian, a Shanghainese woman in her 30s, follows the virtual influencer Ling. Qian said the AI idol’s perfection made her “effortlessly cool” and a “moving art piece.”
Qian said because Ling’s so perfect, she doesn’t even bother to compare herself to the virtual star — and that’s actually freeing.
“No woman can be like her because it’s impossible to be something that’s not real. That’s her appeal,” Qian told Insider. “I don’t care that she’s not a real person. She’s pretty to look at, and that is all I need from an advertisement for makeup or bubble tea.”
Retail experts say their virtual idols may be immune to scandals, but there are real drawbacks to using them
Chen, the expert from Wunderman Thompson, told Insider that while virtual idols provide the flexibility of being whatever you want them to be while remaining immune to bad behavior and sex scandals, there are drawbacks.
“Where a human celebrity usually comes with his or her own capital and reputation, the virtual idol’s persona and pull needs to be created from scratch,” Chen said.
And, said Hong Kong-based marketing expert and brand consultant Miro Li, virtual idols aren’t always “100% perfect,” despite being a new trend in advertising.
“For one, there can be technical issues and glitches. Virtual idols might be easily controlled, but it’s still possible for the people working behind the scenes to make mistakes,” Li said.
Li cited an incident where Japanese virtual idol group Hololive was banned on Bilibili for using the word “Taiwan” in a broadcast, alluding to the island’s independence from the Chinese mainland.
And despite not needing to eat or clothe themselves, they still come with a hefty price tag.
“Overall, virtual idols can be cheaper compared to human celebrities. But top virtual idols can also be very expensive to hire too. Just one shout-out by a top virtual influencer during a live stream could cost upwards of $140,000,” Li said.
“All in all, virtual idols are a safer choice for brands and will no doubt become an important marketing method in the future, but they will not completely replace the human celebrity,” Li added.
Meanwhile, some Chinese fans still think there’s a lot of value in human celebrities fronting ad campaigns — warts and all.
Gigi You, 22, lives in Guangdong, China, and says she prefers human stars like Chinese actor and singer Wang Yibo in campaigns. Wang is one of China’s most popular spokespeople and has fronted ad campaigns for everything from lifestyle product store Miniso, to orange juice, arm massagers, and vacuum cleaners.
“No matter how lifelike these virtual influencers look, they’re still not real people. It’s a little scary, and I wouldn’t trust their endorsement of a product,” You told Insider. “I know that singers and actors are paid to do advertisements, but their endorsement is still way more believable than a virtual man or woman.”