There’s an emerging technology that is starting to gain traction in the tech world. Already featured in most major media networks, the role of deepfake artificial intelligence and virtual influencer (VI) touches on a variety of legal and ethical concerns that the business community should take notice of.
Deepfakes are videos manipulated by AI to overlay images of celebrities or public figures in order to deceive viewers into believing the content is authentic. Recently, deepfake videos of Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson have all emerged and gone viral.
In the state of California, recent legislation has made it “illegal to create or distribute videos, images or audio of politicians doctored to resemble real footage within 60 days of an election,” according to The Guardian. However, the issues are more complex than any given city or state and impact countries, continents and therefore need to be looked at from a much more global context, not local.
VIs, on the other hand, are 3-D animated characters using sophisticated techniques and software to make the characters as real as possible to the human eye. VI character Lil Miquela has most recently attracted over $20 million in venture capital funding and has grown to over 1.8 million followers on Instagram alone.
In my role as founder and creative director of a humanoid agency for robotic VIs, I am transparently peeling back VI technology in the form of a male fitness model character. The experience allows me to deep dive into the world of VIs and document the journey through social media content as well as through our VI podcast.
Unlike deepfake AI’s concern over political influence and voter manipulation, VI’s major concern is around brand influence and consumer manipulation. KFC has most recently deployed its version of a VI Colonel Sanders. The lives and journeys of these fictitious characters are brought to life through emotional storytelling and empathy. This is arguably what captures and captivates consumers the most.
Influencer and content marketing are powerful ways for brands to connect with younger consumer audiences and win their loyalty. It’s difficult for product-based brands to achieve this without connecting those consumers with a likable character. This is where VIs play an important role and perhaps a stand-alone role outside of traditional celebrity, sports or public profile endorsement deals.
The cost savings create a business case in itself; however, in addition to this, brands are able to have greater power and complete control over the story and journey of their VI character, as well as the frequency, volume and messaging of the content. But what happens when brands take this power into a new level of an ethical grey area? Recently, Lil Miquela shared her “personal experience” of being sexually harassed by a Lyft driver.
While we can agree that the safety of ride-share users is of the utmost importance, the content in itself directly targets Lyft as a brand and could have created a detrimental brand impact on Lyft from loyal followers of Lil Miquela.
The added mystery is the lack of clarity or regulations around the transparency of financial disclosures with regards to the making of such statements. For example, could a competitor engage in the services of a VI to make direct brand impacting statements like this in exchange for financial terms undisclosed? I believe this is an especially important question to consider due to the fact that there is no direct promotional marketing or advertising actually conducted (i.e., there isn’t any actual direct paid partnership taking place in this scenario).
Moreover, the law around defamation of a corporation or brand starts to get particularly complex in the situation of a VI, simply due to the fact that the message is not actually spoken by a real person. In addition to this, the content is based on an “experience” published in the form of storytelling truth, as opposed to an intent to cause reputational harm.
With consumer trust and confidence shifting more and more toward influencer content, this is an important trend to keep an eye on. We have yet to see any regulatory or legal considerations toward the use of VIs, and as such, this area is still very much a free market for content creators, marketers and brands.
If you’re experimenting with the use of VI characters, here are my three ethical considerations and recommendations:
1. Be open about your character being a VI. This way, you can ensure you aren’t misleading anyone who’s following your brand. This transparency can be simple, too. For example, you could use the hashtag #virtualinfluencer.
2. Keep your content authentic, as if you were the face of the content. Refrain from ignoring competition and consumer laws, fair trade policies, defamation laws and advertising regulations.
3. Prioritize transparency. If you are going to directly or even indirectly benefit financially from the use of a VI character and content, then ensure this information is transparently available to consumers as well as to your followers. For example, on Instagram, you can use the “Paid Partnership” tag or #ad.
In conclusion, there are key considerations you need to keep in mind if you’re considering using VI to promote your brand. By keeping a few ethical best practices in mind, I believe you can continue building trust with your audience and ultimately protect your organization.