The most successful influencer marketing campaigns provide brands with a real, trusted, authentic human voice; an emotional consumer connection. These IRL influencers provide value to the brands they create content for and the followers they communicate with. Although innovative, the recent addition of Artificial Intelligence (AI) influencers takes this particular marketing strategy back quite a few steps.

 

The phenomenon of what’s real and authentic versus what’s “Instagram real” portrayed by virtual influencers (including their sponsored content) is certainly an interesting philosophical topic. But for marketing purposes, consumers are aware of the face-tuned, filtered world we live in and they follow human influencers on IG because they are relatable and provide authenticity.

Currently, virtual robots (right now it appears there are only two, Lil Miquela and Shudu Gram, but we know the creator behind Lil Miquela is creating more) are drawing followers because people are fascinated with them – not necessarily because of an established emotional connection or a desire to be like the robot.

 

It’s unclear whether a brand-created AI influencer would have the ability to draw and engage actual human followers over time, or impact consideration/purchase in a meaningful way. In most cases, we anticipate diminishing returns for brands when it comes to AI influencers as brand ambassadors, unless very carefully calculated and strategized.

From an ethical, moral, business and legal standpoint, there is much to consider – as AdWeek explores (see excerpts in the bullets below). Weighing all of these areas with your brand’s legal team will be timely and expensive in and of itself:

 

• Morals clauses in contracts – which may cover not only the virtual identity but also the creator (even if they haven’t been publicly identified at the time of entering into the contract). Amongst other things, these clauses help provide protection and recourse related to PR issues of reputation, tarnishment (blurring), appropriation and authenticity.

• Trust, privacy, and transparency are issues that are top-of-mind for today’s consumers. The creator’s anonymity or lack thereof will likely impact the virtual influencer’s value, and you should build these considerations into related contract rights and obligations.

• Shudu’s creator is a white male whose digital creation was inspired by real-life African American models. Already, he is facing cries of cultural appropriation as people point out that he is profiting off of an image of a black woman without paying one. Bad PR costs money. Will Rihanna’s brand be affected? He has named models who inspired him. Does he owe them a percentage of proceeds? These imaginary people could pave the way for real innovation in IP law.

• We can expect that the existing rules, such as the FTC Endorsement Guides, will apply—at least to the extent they can. After all, how can a virtual identity have an opinion based on actual experience? Is the creator’s or operator’s experience relevant?

• From ideation to promotion, you’ll need to protect your brand’s reputation and your company’s bottom line. For example, attributes of a computer-generated influencer will be scrutinized by the public, so brands must be careful.

 

With all of this in mind, it is not to say there aren’t other endeavors or functional use cases to explore leveraging our new robot friends.

 

From a storytelling and entertainment standpoint, we may see an entirely new format of TV shows or movies emerge if writers, directors, and producers get creative – imagine a cast of AI characters whose story unfolds via episodic posts and interactions only on Instagram.

 

At this stage, AI influencers should be looked at as an artistic expression. Both Lil Miquela and Shudu Gram were created by artists as a means of expressing their artistic POV and ideas about the world, as documented in recent news articles (such as the Harper’s Bazaar and BBC pieces) and videos covering their existence. Lil Miquela’s creator is [rumored to be] a DJ, which is why it makes sense that Lil Miquela has her own music on Spotify.

 

We imagine brands will create AI influencer(s) as part of a campaign, stunt, or in an attempt to leverage them as long-term ambassadors, particularly for industries such as beauty or travel where there’s a very natural, functional and low(er)-risk use case such as having the AI influencer demonstrate makeup or share travel itineraries or tips. For all brands though, the development and use of AI influencers will need to be well-strategized and more thoughtful to avoid criticism, parody and worse case, a loss of trust with the consumer.