August 16, 2022
HONG KONG – ‘Hi, this is Ruby9100M. Nice to talk to you!” A soft, amicable voice was heard from the other end of the line. “Ruby9100M is my virtual being. She’s my emotional safety valve,” says Ruby Gloom.
The virtual social media influencer, like most human beings, is squeamish about hostile and scathing comments from the audience she had to wrestle with when she was a real-life influencer.
Ruby’s transformation from a human influencer to a virtual being, with her niche in digital art creation, makes her stand out from the saturated social media influencing sphere and enables her to claw back what she was worth and had lost when she presented herself as a real-life key opinion leader.
“The brands that approached me before usually wanted me to do seeding or attend events. It was almost like I was just one of them in the giant KOL pool,” giggles Ruby.
But now, the brands approach Ruby for branding and specific marketing strategies using digital art, where she can flex her muscles and use her creative mind to fulfill their demands, as well as her self-value.
Influencer marketing has boomed into a gargantuan industry worth an estimated $16.4 billion globally this year, compared with $1.7 billion in 2016 and $9.7 billion in 2020, according to a report by Influencer Marketing Hub. Brands and influencers have formed a symbiotic relationship. As influencer fatigue sets in, virtual influencer marketing becomes the norm with more than 150 computer-generated imagery influencers cropping up and going down well with brands and social media consumers.
Toward the metaverse
The past five years have seen a dramatic shift in terms of how brands perceive virtual influencer marketing — from being scornful and dismissive to being intrigued but cringing away from giving it a try, to taking the plunge and pushing the creative envelope with their own avatar influencers as we see today — observes Didi Pirinyuang, executive creative director at Ensemble Worldwide.
Pirinyuang, who was involved in creating Puma’s virtual influencer Maya, says the initial hesitance of brands was justifiable as virtual influencer marketing was still in its infancy. “Introducing Maya was quite an eye-opening textbook example for our clients who realized that using an avatar for advertising is not impossible,” she says.
Brands also woke up to the fickle factor in human influencers whose unpredictable scandals could blemish their reputation, with their money for influencer marketing going down the drain. This, Pirinyuang says, affects brands pretty much in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, where “celebrity culture” prevails.
Currently, brands across Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and even Thailand, are in a frenzy trying to create their own virtual ambassadors, says Pirinyuang. The activity is so feverish it’s a race in which “no one would disclose the timelines, partners or components in creating them”.
“We’re marching into a virtual landscape, thanks to the metaverse, where virtual influencers will constantly evolve,” says Pirinyuang. “At the end of the day, we will embrace the top-of-the-line virtual influencers who act, talk, walk and live a life just like a human being.”
In Ruby’s case, she has been approached by up to 40 brands so far. “This gives me plenty of freedom to create,” she says. For example, on the Adidas Ozrah shoes promotional project, “they gave me almost complete freedom with the digital content. I wanted to make a music video and they were cool with that,” enthuses Ruby. She treasures her full-time virtual influencing job. “Ya, I have quite a nice income!”
Ruby embarked on her influencer journey when she was 18, oblivious of where it would lead her to, by simply sharing her mix and match “OOTD” (outfit of the day) on Facebook and garnering a fan base there.
Calling herself an “introvert” by nature, both online and offline, Ruby says anxiety, unease and fatigue did creep in after a while. “It occurs to me that if you want to make a career out of the fashion KOL business, you have to blend into the circle and befriend everyone … ”, which was not her thing, recalls Ruby.
“I then started digging into making content for my own fashion brand in 2015. Realizing I like to explore and express graphical concepts, I began learning how to use a 3D program.”
Unwilling to wallow in the online sphere, where influencers are often chastised for their narcissistic, airbrushed and overtly manicured culture, Ruby was desperate for a clear-cut separation between her online and offline existence. Here, Ruby9100M was born — a virtual identity that gives her what she’s after and allows her to stand tall in the saturated influencer space.
“I didn’t really think of becoming a virtual influencer but, in fact, brands and clients see me more as an artist who uses my virtual identity to translate my art,” says Ruby.
Nevertheless, Ruby’s virtual being — a Japanese anime-esque face with porcelain-like skin, straight bangs, big round eyes with the left appearing to don a white grey color cosmetic contact lens and sometimes emanating penetrating superpower rays — didn’t sweep all her fans off their feet.
“At the very beginning, most people didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. Some unfollowed me. I suffered a big drop in the number of my followers on Instagram. Some friends asked if I could make money out of creating images,” recalls Ruby. Some hardcore fans rooted for her new foray but felt nostalgia for her real face.
On the surface, Ruby’s decision to substitute a virtual self for her real being to continue her influencing career may seem benign and purely artistically driven. The trigger for her to take the plunge, however, is complicated. Ruby is outspoken about how the inexorable “boos” from a disapproving section of her audience had crushed her self-esteem and left her feeling inadequate and worthless.
“Growing up from a single parent and traditional family, I had a hard time appreciating myself or even getting to know who I really am. That experience shaped me into a very sensitive and anxious person. I used to feel very depressed when people had negative comments about me online as I was already really low self-esteemed,” laments Ruby.
More than a whimsical artistic expression for herself, Ruby’s virtual being acts as a protective veneer safeguarding her from blatant criticism that she would have internalized and which would have made her self-sabotage.
Part of the mystery of virtual influencers, compared with their human counterparts, lies in their fabricated life narratives and anthropomorphic personalities crafted by their creators. For example, Lil Miquela, the Brazilian-Spanish virtual persona with 3 million Instagram followers, is positioned as a model and singer releasing several musical videos and albums. Her social media feeds of mingling with real-life celebrities enchant her followers. Chinese CGI influencer Angie, a fictional “girl next door”, yawns, gorges herself on meals, has acne and wears basic T-shirts just like an ordinary girl does every day. Her vanilla lifestyle, which seems unmanufactured, permeates her storylines that the audience find relatable.
Without framing her virtual being in a particular background and fashion of storytelling, Ruby allows all possible yarns to happen on Ruby9100M. “I make the virtual self a transhuman without thrusting a real life background on her to remain a virtual yet authentic persona,” says Ruby. Probably, this is her escapism from the traumatic memories.
“Her robotic body parts also highlight empowerment over the fragility of my mind and emotions, as she appears to be much stronger and more intangible than a real human being with flesh and blood.
“In every image of her, she looks right into the camera too. I do that because I believe human connections are always through eye contact. The sincerity and trust through human communication come when we look into a person’s eyes,” elaborates Ruby.
“Being able to use a third-person point of view to create my virtual self is like a journey for me to explore my potential, clean up and dig into my emotions through visual translation.”
According to HypeAuditor, virtual influencers’ engagement is almost three times that of a human influencer. Not only does Ruby relate to it, she finds it interesting that fans treat her as a real-life friend and artist rather than a chatbot giving out only programmed answers.
Real-life KOLs are subjected to harsh judgments. Fictional personae are not immune to eye- rolling. Ruby can’t forget someone bristled at her branded content because she was only expected to do art creation. There are other gray areas and off-putting aspects beneath the ethereal-looking avatar KOL facade and fantasy. “Ethical issues would arise when it’s mishandled. As an Asian woman, I speak for myself and Asians but, when a virtual influencer is created or developed by a mismatched background, the outcome could be chaotic, wrongful and contentious,” argues Ruby.
The influencer marketing industry is riddled with gray areas, where an influencer’s misstep could court explosive condemnation online, unfollowing and even lawsuits. Cancel culture is one of the ultimate penalties among influencer circles. Misinformation, misrepresentations, such as deepfakes, miseducation and deceptive content in the guise of sponsored advertising, are rife in the influencer marketing zone.
Influencers are expected to disclose that their posts are paid or sponsored content because a “paid content” disclaimer signals that the viewers should form their own views.
However, in most economies, there is a blank in the law enforcement. “Disruptive technology advances so fast that legislation can barely catch up with it,” says Nicholas Chan Hiu-fung, a lawyer specializing in AI-related regulatory compliance.
In Hong Kong, for instance, there are general laws in place against fraud and to protect consumers, but none of them particularly addresses the problem of online misinformation and misrepresentation propagated by content creators, which is prevalent in CGI circles.
“I’m not advocating against CGI or virtual influencers. We can’t go too far (to ban them). But we definitely need to adopt a technology-neutral approach in enforcing regulations,” Chan contends. Expanding the terms in existing laws to cover illegal online practices that arise from a series of new developments is the first step. But updating and upgrading the laws is far from enough, he reckons. Instead, Hong Kong should take its cue from Singapore, where the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act was passed in 2019. “We don’t want to target virtual influencers (because they’re not harmful per se) but, in the process of discussing, drafting and passing the law, brands, advertising sectors and consumer groups should be brought into the conversation and raise the issues.”
Making a market
“Hong Kong is really slow in avatar influencer marketing. It might be due to the (lack of) acceptance and understanding of the audience, as well as the expensive cost of creating and developing a CGI character,” says Ruby.
Hong Kong is also a comparatively small market for international brands to test the waters, she adds.
Howard Lam Pong-yuen, associate professor of practice in marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, notes that Television Broadcasts (TVB) has dominated the local television scene for a long time, with the masses consuming advertising content, as well as TV dramas, in faith. Marketers who want to promote their products tend to spend up to 85 percent of their advertising budgets on TVB and the other 15 percent on creating digital content, be it avatar influencers or multimedia content on social media, says Lam. However, the 15-percent expenditure is not considered cost-effective as it could only appeal to the young audience, he reckons.
Now, Ruby is coasting down the playing field, which is quite empty, for virtual influencers in Hong Kong. “I’m confident about my work and vision,” she says.