Virtual influencers: Hardworking celebrities who never demand pay raises

Agencies and tech giants create AI-powered digital personalities to capitalize on the fame and power market

Lil Miquela
From left: AI influencers Alba Renai, Lil Miquela, and Aitana López.
Natalia Ponjoan

In the wake of the artificial intelligence revolution, a new virtual idol format has emerged. Meet Alba Renai (@albarenai), a 24-year-old content creator based in Madrid. With a passion for travel, interior decoration and fashion, Alba regularly showcases her interests on Instagram. Recently, she took part in the GenZ awards gala, organized by Mediaset España to honor top content creators. What sets Alba apart is that she’s purely digital — she’s not a flesh-and-blood person, but an AI-generated virtual influencer.

But how was Alba actually created? Silvia Velasco, the founder of the Be a Lion agency, explains the process. “First, we developed a training model with ChatGPT and gathered information about the preferences and interests of Generation Z (born after 1995). We also conducted a survey of over 350 consumers, asking them about their expectations of a content creator and their aesthetic preferences.” In June, Be a Lion established a special VIA (virtual influencer agency) division for this venture.

Aitana López (@fit_aitana) is not an ordinary model, but a virtual content creator generated by artificial intelligence. She describes herself as a fitness and video game enthusiast, boasting over 220,000 followers on Instagram. A recent post from Aitana: “Here’s a smile for those who asked! Do you prefer serious or smiling photos? Let me know — I’m listening.” Rubén Cruz and Diana Núñez, founders of The Clueless agency that created Aitana, said, “People just can’t believe that Aitana is fake! She gets about 300 messages every day from people who want to get to know her.” Aitana has recently been partnering with fellow models, influencers and small brands to promote their products.

Creators of virtual influencers aim to reduce promotional and advertising costs by cutting expenses associated with real models, such as transportation, food and accommodations. “Virtual models can do a campaign in some far-off country one day, and then do one the next day on the other side of the world — with no labor costs,” said Cruz and Núñez. Before founding The Clueless, the duo worked in a communications agency that would “pay a real model or influencer” over $6,000 “for three stories.”

From China to Meta

Alba and Aitana are two examples of digital people in the emerging virtual celebrity industry that is striving to establish itself as a viable business. Chinese companies have been offering this service since 2022, reports MIT Technology Review. Startups and large technology companies have created virtual avatars to promote and sell products 24/7 on ecommerce platforms like Taobao — all for just $1,000.

In September, Meta launched 28 AI-powered chatbots featuring avatars of celebrities like Kendall Jenner (Billie), Paris Hilton (Amber), and Snoop Dogg (Dungeon Master). Currently, they are only available for testing in the United States. According to Business Insider, celebrities who have granted Meta their image rights reportedly earned up to $5 million for six hours of work over a two-year period. Artificial intelligence has made celebrities more omnipresent, since they can penetrate every market and formats at any time. Celebrities like Jenner, with nearly 300 million Instagram followers, use chatbots to engage and monetize fans.

According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, virtual agents are emerging alongside influencers and celebrities. These agents are indefatigable sales assistants, presenters, multilingual trainers and social media influencers dedicated to brand promotion. Lingyao Yuan, a professor of information systems at Iowa State University and the author of the study, has conducted extensive research on digital humans over the past seven years. She says virtual employees have many advantages — round-the-clock availability, full compliance with company policies, and eternal satisfaction with their (zero) compensation.

Yuan and her colleagues studied people’s reactions to being assisted by a digital customer service agents based on a real celebrity — Hugh Jackman. The study found that when customers perceive digital-human customer service agents as celebrities, they tend to perceive them as more capable, kind, and trustworthy. This perception of trustworthiness leads to a higher intention to use the service. Additionally, customers are more forgiving towards celebrity agents compared to non-celebrity agents when they make mistakes.

One of the most famous digital content creators is Lil Miquela (@lilmiquela), a 19-year-old young woman created by the Brud agency in Los Angeles. She has 2.7 million followers on Instagram and has appeared in advertisements for luxury companies like Prada and BMW. One of the biggest success factors for virtual avatars is their physical appearance. “I believe the key to accepting an AI as a human equivalent is to evoke anthropomorphism in the process,” said Yuan. But it’s not the only important factor. “Realistic human faces can strongly encourage people to treat digital humans as real, but intelligence and the overall message are also crucial.”

Ethical dilemmas

Aitana frequently shares photos of herself in underwear on social media and offers her followers access to “exclusive content.” Aitana’s creators say her followers are mostly men. Rebeca Cordero, a sociology professor at the European University of Madrid, says the sexualization of virtual models “is par for the course on social media — that’s how they get followers.” Aitana’s creators clarified that their intention wasn’t to create a sexual model and said that they don’t reply to the overtly sexual private messages Aitana receives.

The use of virtual influencers raises additional ethical concerns beyond the hyper-sexualization of women, says the Harvard Business Review study. “As demonstrated by ChatGPT, new technology can be disruptive. Therefore, it is crucial for companies to thoroughly consider the potential impacts and undesired outcomes prior to implementing digital humans,” said Yuan. The use of AI is concerning, says Yuan, because it raises questions about content creator ownership and control. Alan R. Dennis, a professor of internet systems at Indiana University and co-author of the study, recommends promoting wider awareness of AI to address this issue. “Allowing artificial intelligence to make decisions, such as hiring, raises genuine ethical concerns.”

“You can’t leave me hanging like this! Come back and let’s have some fun.” That’s the last message digital culture analyst Jules Terpark received from Zach, a famous Meta chatbot based on MrBeast. After testing Meta’s chatbots, Terpak suddenly realized something that she posted on X: “These things genuinely want your time. They are not useful tools — they’re being used as companions to reel you in. That’s where the lines are crossed for me.”

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