Forever young, beautiful and scandal-free: the rise of South Korea’s virtual influencers

He has more than 130,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts photos of his adventures around the world. Her make-up is always impeccable, her clothes seem to be taken from the catwalk. She sings and dances and models, and none of it is real.

Rozy is a “virtual influencer” from South Korea, a digitally rendered human so realistic she’s often mistaken for flesh and blood.

“Are you a real person?” asks one of his Instagram fans. “Are you an AI? Or a robot?”

According to the Seoul-based company that created her, Rozy is a mix of all three that straddles both sides of the real and virtual world.

She is “able to do everything humans can’t…in the most humane way,” says Sidus Studio X on its website.

That includes making a profit for the company in the multibillion-dollar worlds of advertising and entertainment.

Since her launch in 2020, Rozy has landed brand deals and endorsements, strutted the runway in virtual fashion shows, and even released two singles.

And she is not alone.

The “virtual human” industry is booming, and with it a whole new economy in which the influencers of the future will never age, have no scandals, and be digitally perfect, raising alarm among some in a country that is already obsessed with unattainable beauty standards.

How virtual influencers work

The CGI (computer generated imagery) technology behind Rozy is not new. It is ubiquitous in today’s entertainment industry, where artists use it to create realistic non-human characters in movies, computer games, and music videos.

But only recently has it been used to make influencers.

Sometimes Sidus Studio X creates an image of Rozy from head to toe using technology, an approach that works well for her Instagram images. She sometimes superimposes her head on the body of a human model, for example, when she models clothes.

South Korean retail brand Lotte Home Shopping created its virtual influencer, Lucy, who has 78,000 followers on Instagram, with software typically used for video games.

Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers build a following through social media, where they post snapshots of their “lives” and interact with their fans. Rozy’s account shows her “traveling” to Singapore and enjoying a glass of wine on a rooftop while her fans compliment her outfit.

older generations might consider interacting with an artificial person somewhat strange. But experts say virtual influencers have struck a chord with younger Koreans, digital natives who spend much of their lives online.

Lee Na-kyoung, a 23-year-old living in Incheon, started following Rozy about two years ago thinking she was a real person.

Rozy followed her around, sometimes commenting on her posts, and a virtual friendship blossomed, one that has endured even after Lee discovered the truth.

“We communicated as friends and I felt comfortable with her, so I don’t consider her an AI but a true friend,” Lee said.

“I love Rozy’s content,” Lee added. “She’s so pretty I can’t believe she’s an AI.”

a profitable business

Social media not only allows virtual influencers to build a fan base, it’s where the money comes in.

by rozy Instagram, for example, is peppered with sponsored content where it advertises skincare and fashion products.

“Many big companies in Korea want to use Rozy as a model,” said Baik Seung-yup, CEO of Sidus Studio X. “This year, we hope to easily reach more than two billion Korean won (about $1.52 million). ) in earnings, only with Rozy.”

He added that as Rozy became more popular, the company garnered more endorsements from luxury brands like Chanel and Hermes, as well as magazines and other media companies. Ads of her have now appeared on television, and even in offline spaces like billboards and the sides of buses.

Lotte expects similar earnings this year from Lucy, who has brought in advertising deals from finance and construction companies, according to Lee Bo-hyun, director of Lotte Home Shopping’s media business division.

The models are in high demand because they help brands reach younger consumers, experts say. Rozy’s clients include a life insurance company and a bank, companies that are normally considered old-fashioned. “But they say that his image has become very young after working with Rozy,” said Baik.

It also helps that compared to some of their real-life counterparts, these new stars are low-maintenance.

Lotte and Sidus Studio X take between a few hours and a couple of days to create an image of your stars, and from two days to a few weeks for a commercial video. That’s a lot less time and work than is required to produce a commercial with real human beings, where weeks or months can be spent scouting locations and preparing logistics such as lighting, hair and makeup, styling, catering and post-production editing.

And, perhaps just as important: virtual influencers never get old, tired or invite controversy.

Lotte settled on a virtual influencer as she considered how to maximize her “show hosts,” Lee said.

Lotte Home Shopping hires human hosts to advertise products on television, but “they cost a lot” and “there will be changes when they get older,” Lee said. So, they came up with Lucy, who is “29 forever.”

“Lucy is not limited by time or space,” he added. “She can appear anywhere. And there are without moral problems.

A question about beauty.

South Korea isn’t the only place that has embraced virtual influencers.

Among the most famous virtual influencers in the world are Lil Miquela, created by the co-founders of an American technology startup, who has endorsed brands such as Calvin Klein and Prada and has more than 3 million followers on Instagram; Lu de Magalu, created by a Brazilian retail company, with almost 6 million followers on Instagram; and FNMeka, a rapper created by the music company Factory New, with more than 10 million followers on TikTok.

But there is a big difference, according to Lee Eun-hee, a professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Inha University: Virtual influencers in other countries tend to reflect a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and beauty ideals.

Virtual humans elsewhere have a “uniqueness,” while “those in Korea are always made beautiful and pretty… (reflecting) the values ​​of each country,” he added.

And in South Korea, often referred to as the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its burgeoning $10.7 billion Industry: There are concerns that virtual influencers could further push unrealistic beauty standards.

Younger Koreans have begun to reject these ideals. in recent years, sparking a movement in 2018 dubbed “escaping the corset.”

But ideas about what is popularly considered beautiful in the country remain narrow; for women, this usually means a petite figure with large eyes, a small face, and pale, fair skin.

And these characteristics are shared by most of the country’s virtual influencers; Lucy has flawless skin, long shiny hair, a slim jawline, and a perky nose. Rozy has full lips, long legs, and a flat stomach that peeks out from under her crop tops.

Lee Eun-hee warned that virtual influencers like Rozy and Lucy could be making Korea’s already demanding beauty standards even more unattainable, and increasing demand for plastic surgery or cosmetic products among women seeking to emulate them.

“Real women want to be like them, and men want to date people who look the same,” she said.

The creators of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.

Lotte’s representative Lee Bo-hyun said that they had tried to make Lucy more than just a “pretty image” by creating an elaborate backstory and personality. She studied industrial design and works on car design. She posts about her work and interests, such as her love of animals and kimbap: rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. In this way, “Lucy strives to have a good influence on society,” Lee said, adding, “She is giving a message to the public to ‘do what she wants to do according to her beliefs.’ “.

Baik, the CEO of Sidus Studio X, said that Rozy is not what “anyone would call beautiful” and that the firm had deliberately tried to make her appearance unique and stray from traditional Korean norms. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her eyes set wide apart from his.

“Rozy shows people the importance of inner confidence,” he added. “There are other virtual humans who are just as pretty… but I made Rozy to show that you can still be beautiful (even without a conventionally attractive face).”

‘Digital Blackface’

But the concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. In other parts of the world there is debate about the ethics of marketing products to consumers who do not realize that the models are not human, as well as the risk of cultural appropriation by creating influencers of different ethnicities, labeled by some as “digital black face

The parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Meta, which has more than 200 virtual influencers on its platforms, has acknowledged the risks.

“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media has the potential for both good and harm. Issues of representation, cultural appropriation and freedom of expression are already a growing concern,” the company said in a statement. blog post.

“To help brands navigate the ethical dilemmas of this emerging medium and avoid potential pitfalls, (Meta) is working with partners to develop an ethical framework to guide the use of (virtual influencers).”

But one thing seems clear: the industry is here to stay. As interest in the digital world grows, from the metaverse and virtual reality technologies to digital currencies: companies say virtual influencers are the next frontier.

Lotte hopes that Lucy will go from advertising to entertainment, perhaps appearing in a television drama. The firm is also working on a virtual human that will appeal to shoppers in their 40s and 60s.

Sidus Studio X also has big ambitions; Rozy will launch her own cosmetics brand in August, as well as an NFT (non-fungible token), and the firm hopes to create a virtual pop trio to conquer the music charts.

Baik points out that most fans don’t meet real celebrities in person, they only see them on screen. So “there’s not a big difference between virtual humans and the real-life celebrities they like,” he said.

“We want to change perceptions of how people think of virtual humans,” Baik added. “What we do is not take jobs away from people, but do things that humans can’t do, like work 24 hours a day or create unique content like walking in the sky.

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