|Lil Miquela / Screen captured from Lil Miquela's Instagram|
By Kim Jae-heun
In 1997, a "virtual" character named Adam appeared on the local marketing scene. He gained considerable popularity for his singing and modeling abilities but it didn't last too long. Graphic designers had to spend night after night just to get Adam to say one word.
The science has improved greatly over the last 23 years and it has become much easier to create an imaginary person that can speak and move naturally by using artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
This has led various global companies to use fictional characters as marketing models, replacing human celebrities such as TV personalities, YouTubers or social media influencers.
A 19-year-old Latin American girl named "Lil Miquela" is one example that has gone viral on the American marketing scene. She has an Instagram account with 2.55 million followers and often posts selfies she has taken with celebrities, and collaborative work with global fashion houses such as Prada, Givenchy and Moncler.
Lil Miquela also sings and has released a single. Her song "Not Mine," released in 2017, was streamed 1.5 million times on the global platform Spotify.
The digital avatar is so exquisitely designed that many leave comments under her social media posts asking if she is a real person.
An American technology startup specializing in AI and robotics, Brud, created this virtual superstar. Her influence in marketing is so powerful that even the hard-nosed Chanel advertises its luxury products through Lil Miquela.
She has already been chosen as one of the 25 most influential "persons" on the internet by Times magazine, making the list in June 2018.
American fast food restaurant KFC recently revived its deceased founder Harland Sanders with a fictional character that looks younger and more stylish. The virtual Sanders travels around the world and introduces new menu items on KFC's official Instagram account.
The biggest strength in using a digital avatar as a brand model lies in cost cutting and risk reduction.
Brand models often get embroiled in unsavory scandals and companies have to deal with the fallout from such unexpected events. Also, people can ask for higher payment as they become more popular; virtual characters are exceptions to these uniquely human circumstances.
Moreover, fictional characters are not restricted from traveling at any time or to any place and will act according to the designers' input on a computer. Communication is also not a barrier as they can be coded to speak multiple languages.
If people get tired of existing virtual models, AI companies can change their age, personality and identity according to market preferences.
In Lil Miquela's case, she was designed to support sexual minorities and the disadvantaged while advocating for equal rights for all, which satisfies the young generation's desire for value consumption.
|HiteJinro's mascot Toad appears in the soju maker's advertisement / Courtesy of HiteJinro|
In Korea, no other virtual character has gained popularity since Adam. The world's leading producer of soju, HiteJinro, has created a whimsical but happy animated toad character to appear in its commercials. However, this is a one-off case.
"In Korea, corporate advertising tends to focus on short-term effects, so the domestic market is still formed mainly by proven celebrities such as K-pop singers or actors," an industry source said. "For companies that own famous mascots like the toad for HiteJinro or Sanders for KFC, it is not a problem, but others need time and investment to come up with a new virtual character."
In the global luxury industry, fashion houses have already begun their marketing in the virtual world. Not only are the using digital avatars as their models, but they are sponsoring video games so that the brand and its products can be introduced to young people in a new way.
Previously, fashion designers discovered the muses that inspired them in the real world; but now these have been replaced by virtual characters.
In February, French fashion house Louis Vuitton collaborated with American video game developer Riot Games to introduce luxury items for the character Senna in its popular game League of Legends.
This is not the first time that the French luxury brand has made "luxury weapons" for a virtual character. Last year, it held a capsule collection with Riot Games' digital avatars wearing Louis Vuitton T-shirts.
Nicolas Ghesquiere, creative director for women's clothing at Louis Vuitton, saw the marketing tactic pay off, with the capsule collection going viral and all products being sold. In an interview with local media she remarked that it is interesting to see that game characters can affect the real world and make people want to recreate certain looks.