Isn’t social media supposed to bring us closer together?
Isn’t AI supposed to make our lives easier?
Aren’t artists and filmmakers supposed to stop once their movies are made?
But they haven’t, and our youth and friends are at risk as they flock to the wonderment and admiration of AI-powered CGI influencers like Lil’ Miquela and Bermuda. It takes more than just the glance of an image to realize that they aren’t even human.
We all know that social media is directly affecting our levels of happiness, self-fulfillment, anxiety and confidence. But a new line – a line that hasn’t even been drawn yet – has been crossed, and it’s time for marketers to think critically before we endorse and breed this emerging category of manufactured influencers before they’re created at scale.
Unsurprisingly, innovation has outpaced regulation. Leading marketing and entertainment lawyer Sara Perry considered how the current regulatory regime applies to CGI influencers: “Influencer endorsements are successful when the brand integration is authentic and aligns with the influencer’s core values, goals and beliefs. Consider key legal principles underlying the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides on Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising: truth and transparency. When looking at CGI content, how do we evaluate what is “true” when the influencer’s thoughts, opinions and entire personality are manufactured? Does a brand disclosure even matter if the entire post is fake?”
While the Federal Trade Commission’s rules surely would apply to basic disclosures (which in actuality have yet to be seen), we have to look beyond the fine print and think about the ethics of this fictional world and the harm synthetic influencers could create for the emerging generations.
Let’s take Lil’ Miquela, the most well-known CGI influencer today, with 1.3 million followers. She’s the perfect replica of today’s top trends: thin, gap tooth, freckles, fringe bangs, big lips, rarely smiling in photos, and ‘wearing’ the latest fashion trends and premium labels like Moncler. She recently got a tattoo by the most in-demand celebrity tattoo artist, Dr. Woo. Her hair and makeup are always perfect, because it’s possible for her to look more perfect than any human ever could.
In the only phone interview she’s ever done with YouTuber Shane Dawson (worth nothing this was done through AI, although never stated), she sounds like a PR pro, navigating around the questions like a political candidate. But that’s easy when a computer is generating your answers, and you don’t have to worry about impulsive, emotional human tendencies.
As marketers, of course there’s opportunity in that. Every part of her can be controlled and planned. You can even create storylines around her life that serve your purpose. That’s why brands like Prada, Diesel and Outdoor Voices have engaged her to endorse their products,. While she claims she’s never been paid to promote a product (only to design it), it’s hard to see how she can actually endorse something that she genuinely loves or technically designed, as her opinions, style and technical prowess are generated by data, computers, and the humans behind them. This is where it gets foggy.
Mike Schmidt, the founder of leading influencer marketing platform Dovetale.com says, “brands care about how stories are conveyed and the audience subsequently reached. People, and now CGI celebrities, are blurring the lines between digital and human influence.”
But we’re not the ones they’re fooling. Or are we?
We are the ones liking her photos, her victories, following her (manufactured) online drama with other CGI influencers, her relationships with humans who are in on the whole game, and wishing we had her clothes, friends, boyfriends, hair, lips, and millions of fans, every time we check Instagram.
Right now, there’s only a handful of these CGI Influencers. In a recent conversation with Ilya Feige, Head of Science at ASI Data Science, he warned, “I think that this whole field gets much more interesting and scary when the AI technology reaches the point where it becomes easy to create fake-influencer content en masse. That is, if I can type in a message, toggle a few buttons, and then get 1,000 different fake-influencer photos and posts in different languages and with different messages, each with 1,000,000 followers, I can start to have an unbalanced amount of influence, all at a granular level. The AI technology is not there yet, but it’s probably only a few years away.”
“Technology that tears apart our common reality and the truth, constantly shreds our attention or causes us to feel isolated. It makes it impossible to solve the world’s other pressing problems like climate change, poverty, and polarization.” – Tristan Harris
Tristan Harris, one of the top thought leaders in design ethics and the co-founder of the Center of Humane Technology sums up the issue precisely: “Technology that tears apart our common reality and the truth, constantly shreds our attention or causes us to feel isolated. It makes it impossible to solve the world’s other pressing problems like climate change, poverty, and polarization.”
While this emerging category is undoubtedly interesting to follow, we must remember that CGI influencers aren’t real humans with opinions, emotions or decision-making capabilities. If you do choose to have them promote your brand, remember they are a channel, not an endorsement. Let us take it upon ourselves to keep this line as clear as possible as we experiment with these emerging technologies and the effects that they can render on our future generations.