Virtual Influencers and the Convoluted World of Ads

Our buying habits are massively influenced by the media we consume, and with a
changing world, the media we consume is changing as well. Social media’s
popularity is on the rise, and its role in shaping the public opinion is undeniable (the
Cambridge Analytica scandal comes to mind). With big corporations wanting to
exploit every outlet of public expression, a crop of virtual social media influencers
has popped up.

However dystopian it may sound, a bunch of unknown people with unknown
interests have created and are running social media profiles for virtual influencers.
These influencers look and sound exactly like real people, but in fact, are an
amalgamation of various people behind the scenes. Miquela Sousa a.k.a. Lil
Miquela (@lilmiquela on Instagram) was created by Silicon Valley-based tech
company Brud in 2016, and now has not only over 1.9 million followers on
Instagram but also viral singles called Not Mine and Money on Spotify (she also has
a creepy boyfriend who’s actually a real live human). While Miquela seems pretty
“left-leaning” from her profile (even though “she” hasn’t ever stated her political
ideology), Brud also has the right-wing cornered with Bermuda, a white, blonde,
and slightly conservative virtual influencer (@bermudaisbae). Bermuda and Miquela
even had a whole segment where they fought online, and conveniently became
friends immediately after. Following this trend of virtual influencers, even KFC ran a
segment of ads on their official Instagram account where Colonel Sanders was
reimagined as a youthful virtual Instagram influencer (this also resulted in a spin-off dating simulator on Steam where you can try and woo this creepy old-but-also-
young Colonel Sanders).

It all may seem like harmless funny content for giggles, but the shadowy corporate
interests behind such influencers make one question the ethics of it all. A virtual
person cannot refuse to advertise for companies that their creators support, and
when you see people questioning whether these personalities are real or not, you
question whether these influencers should be legally required to declare that they
are fake. Miquela, for example, has done several paid partnerships on her profile
with companies like Samsung alongside big names like Millie Bobby Brown. Just
seeing influencers wear certain types of clothes can subconsciously influence one’s
fashion choices, and when you see similar clothes in a shop, you are more likely to
buy them since you already associate them with popular and trendy people, even if
you have forgotten who that person actually was. The big companies can just pay
all of the influencers to advertise their products, thereby effectively controlling your
tastes and the market trends as a whole. This, combined with the personal rapport
influencers can build with their audience, prime these fake online personalities to
become the next big marketing tool.

Ads are becoming more and more convoluted with each passing day, and this is no different. Companies want to establish a brand image in the consumer’s head more than actually informing the public about the product they are selling. They continue to defecate in your head constantly, until the next time you visit the supermarket you already think their product is better than the others, with no real evidence to back it up. Brand loyalty is becoming more and more important, and its effects are visible all across the first world. Planters Peanuts came up with a bizarre advertisement for the recent Superbowl, in which Mr Peanut (their mascot) was killed off. This paid off though, with #RIPeanut trending number one on Twitter. In a similar vein, an investigation was launched by the US house of representatives and the US Senate into the alleged advertising malpractices by the Juul Company. They have been accused of advertising to minors by showing very young-looking models smoking the vape against colourful flashy backgrounds in their ads, getting social media influencers to use the Juul online, and giving away the devices for free or for a couple of dollars at their events. All this led to young people and children trying and getting hooked to these devices which are easy to conceal and sleek-looking; these are people who wouldn’t otherwise have thought of smoking or vaping.

All these adverts seek to create a vanity fair of sorts in our lives, the sole objective
to make us buy more and more useless items we don’t need, by making us think
that somehow all those are essential for our happiness. All it does is create an
empty hollow which cannot be filled by any number of physical objects. The graffiti
artist Banksy has famously said that advertising is filling our public spaces with
jeers and spites to us about how we are not sexy enough, how our partners are
inadequate, and how that all the fun is happening somewhere else. These ads are
now encroaching our online public sphere. It is high time we take a stand against
these blatant insults aimed at us by choosing to not indulge in this materialistic
subculture, and instead push for more transparency and control over our ads.
Pressure your representatives to remove the billboards overlooking your street; they
help no one on your land.

[Gautam Gupta – he/him]

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