Originally posted on insider.
China is tempting customers with its flawless AI idols — virtual influencers who don’t gain weight, never age, and keep their computer-generated noses out of controversy
She has wrinkle-free, porcelain skin, her hair glistens in every type of light, and her eyes sparkle with joy all the time. She does what you want, whenever you want, and her smile never fades. She’s the hardest-working influencer a brand could ask for — she never sleeps, and she takes no breaks.
Her name is Ling, and she’s a social media influencer with more than 130,000 followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. She is also not real, but that hasn’t stopped her from netting ad deals with Tesla and Nayuki, one of China’s biggest bubble tea chains.
Ling guarantees a trouble-free experience for advertisers and marketers in an age of celebrity scandals and influencer controversies. Unlike the David Dobriks and Jake Pauls of the world, an AI presence like Ling is engineered to perfection down to the last wisp of hair on her head. Her ultimate selling point is that she brings absolute peace of mind to the brands she works for — something that unpredictable human celebrities and influencers could not possibly ensure.
Ling was created last May by Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) start-up Shanghai Xmov Information Technology and Beijing Cishi Culture Media Company, and is purpose-built to be featured in ads on any social platform, from Instagram to TikTok.
She’s a new breed of what the Chinese call “virtual idols,” which have become favorites among China’s major brands, particularly in light of high-profile celebrity scandals that have rocked the country. Most recently, labels from Porsche to Bulgari dropped Chinese megastar Kris Wu en-masse after authorities in Beijing arrested him on accusations of rape.
Wu was a fan favorite to front brand ad campaigns, which were estimated to have netted him upwards of $3 million each. But with his fall from grace, it’s easy to see why an AI-created spokesperson might be preferable to the real thing.
Moreover, it’s hard not to identify where Ling’s allure lies. Instead of filtering celebrities’ faces and photoshopping selfies beyond recognition to meet modern beauty standards, brands have now commenced with the vagaries of human imperfection. Ling is more perfect than even the most beautiful woman because that’s exactly what she’s been engineered to do.
Insider spoke to marketing experts and consumers to discover why virtual idols are taking off like never before.
Virtual idols are fast becoming a billion-dollar industry in China
The rise of virtual idols seems a logical outcrop of a social media industry built on pushing users further and further to the bottom of an uncanny valley. Facetune and photo filters have almost turned in on themselves, and it’s now not uncommon for women to pursue cosmetic surgery to turn themselves into IRL versions of the airbrushed, filtered photos they post on their social media profiles.
“Five or ten years ago, people might have brought in a picture of a magazine cover supermodel. Now they’re bringing in a picture of themselves but just in a slightly optimized way, where Facetune or a Snapchat filter will give them a millimeter more of a cheekbone projection, or a fuller lip, or a straighter nose,” plastic surgeon Dr. Laura Devgan told Vice in 2018.
All this unreality primed audiences for the rise of the virtual influencer. It’s tough to estimate just how much of the influencer market virtual influencers take up, but Bloomberg reported last October that Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer with 3 million followers on Instagram, makes around $8,500 for a sponsored post. And unlike social media influencers who were constrained by the pandemic and forced to stay in lockdown mode, Lil Miquela was free to work, even debuting a song at the online-only Lollapalooza last year.
Miquela, created by the marketing agency Brud, recently joked on her Instagram account that she was celebrating her 19 birthday — for the sixth time.
Virtual or not, Miquela is a wealthy 19-year-old. UK marketplace OnBuy estimates that Miquela earned around $11 million for her Brud last year, far beyond the average social media influencer’s annual salary of $46,703. Her earnings are a sizeable chunk of the $3 billion US marketers spent on influencers last year.
Virtual influencers “are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term, are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die,” said Christopher Travers, the founder of virtualhumans.org, in an interview with Bloomberg.
Virtualhumans.org catalogs the growing sphere of virtual influence — from the pig/man chimera John Pork to the “virtual diva” Aisha. Some are more lifelike than others. Nearly all present an idealized Instagram image — young, attractive, and thin.
But China’s AI sector is taking its AI idols in a different direction, creating influencers that can be customized to a brand’s needs.
The country’s first virtual idol was Luo Tianyi, a pint-sized two-dimensional animated girl with oversized eyes and a heart-shaped face who got famous for her cloyingly sweet voice and anime-style songs. Launched in 2012 and created by tech firm Shanghai Henian Technology Co., Luo has more than five million fans on Weibo. In her decade of stardom, she’s also achieved mainstream appeal, even sharing a stage with popular Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang in 2019.
And the industry is booming. According to a Bloomberg report from June, the virtual idol industry reaches an audience of an estimated 390 million people in China, with an accompanying animation and merchandise industry worth around $35 billion.
Chinese marketing research firm iiMedia Research estimates the virtual idol industry pulled in $540 million in 2020 from brand endorsements alone. The research firm charted the industry’s growth from 2017 to 2020 and projected a 70% year-over-year growth rate. This means China’s virtual influencer business could be worth close to $960 million in 2021.
It is unclear exactly how many virtual idols there are in China right now, but Insider estimates its numbers to be in the hundreds. Several big names have also emerged in the industry to rival Luo and Ling. Yousa, for one, is a virtual singer on Bilibili, the Chinese version of YouTube, who has more than 3 million subscribers. Also on Bilibili is Angie, a fresh-faced, piano-playing AI influencer with over 10,200 fans on Weibo.