Forever Young, Beautiful, and Scandal-Free: The Rise of Virtual Influencers in South Korea

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Jessie Yeung and Gawon Bae, CNN

She has over 130,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts photos of her globetrotting adventures. Her makeup is always flawless, her clothes are straight off the catwalk. She sings, dances and models – and none of it is real.

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

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

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

She’s “capable of doing everything humans can’t…in the most human form,” Sidus Studio X says on its website.

This includes making profits for the company in the multi-billion dollar advertising and entertainment worlds.

Since launching in 2020, Rozy has landed brand deals and endorsements, walked 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 never grow old, scandal-free and digitally flawless – raising alarm among some in an already obsessed country by unattainable standards of beauty.

How virtual influencers work

The CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology behind Rozy isn’t 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 it has only recently been used to make influencers.

Sometimes Sidus Studio X creates a head-to-toe image of Rozy using technology, an approach that works well for its Instagram images. Other times he superimposes his head on the body of a human model – when she is modeling clothes, for example.

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

Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers build an audience through social media, where they post snapshots of their “life” 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 outfits.

older generations might consider interacting with a somewhat strange artificial person. But experts say virtual influencers have struck a chord with young Koreans, digital natives who spend a large part 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, occasionally commenting on her posts, and a virtual friendship blossomed — one that lasted even after Lee found out 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 doesn’t just allow virtual influencers to build a fan base, that’s where the money comes in.

Chez Rozy Instagram, for example, is littered with sponsored content where she advertises skincare and fashion products.

“Many large Korean companies want to use Rozy as a model,” said Baik Seung-yup, CEO of Sidus Studio X. “This year, we expect to easily reach over two billion Korean won (about 1.52 million dollars) of profits, just with Rozy.

He added that as Rozy became more popular, the company landed more sponsorships from luxury brands such as Chanel and Hermes, as well as magazines and other media companies. His ads have now appeared on TV, and even in offline spaces like billboards and the sides of buses.

Lotte expects similar profits this year from Lucy, which brought advertising deals from financial and construction companies, according to Lee Bo-hyun, director of media business division of Lotte Home Shopping.

The models are in high demand as they help brands reach younger consumers, experts say. Rozy’s clients include a life insurance company and a bank – businesses generally considered old-fashioned. “But they say their image got very youthful after working with Rozy,” Baik said.

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

It takes Lotte and Sidus Studio X between a few hours and a few days to create an image of their stars, and from two days to a few weeks for a video advertisement. It’s much less time and work than necessary to produce an ad featuring real humans – where weeks or months can be spent scouting locations and preparing logistics like lighting, hair and makeup, styling, catering and post-production editing.

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

Lotte chose a virtual influencer when she thought about how to maximize her “show hosts,” Lee said.

Lotte Home Shopping hires human hosts to advertise the products on TV – but they “are quite expensive” and “there will be changes with age,” Lee said. So they found Lucy, who is “still 29”.

“Lucy is not limited by time or space,” he added. “She can appear anywhere. And there is no moral issues.

A question about beauty

South Korea isn’t the only place to embrace virtual influencers.

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

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

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

And in South Korea – often dubbed the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its burgeoning $10.7 billion industry – there are fears that virtual influencers are fueling more unrealistic beauty standards.

Young Koreans began to push back against these ideals in recent years, triggering in 2018 a movement called “escaping the corset”.

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

And these features are shared by most virtual influencers in the country; Lucy has flawless skin, long shiny hair, a slender jaw and a pointed nose. Rozy has plump lips, long legs, and a flat stomach under her crop tops.

Lee Eun-hee has warned that virtual influencers like Rozy and Lucy could make Korea’s already high beauty standards even more inaccessible – and increase demand for plastic surgery or cosmetics among women who seek to emulate them.

“Real women want to become 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 rep Lee Bo-hyun said they tried to make Lucy more than just a “pretty image” by creating an elaborate story and personality. She studied industrial design and works in automotive 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 be a good influence in society,” Lee said, adding, “She gives the message to the public to ‘do what you want to do according to your beliefs’.”

Baik, the CEO of Sidus Studio X, said Rozy is not what “anyone would call beautiful” and that the company deliberately tried to make her look unique and move away from traditional Korean standards. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her wide eyes.

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

“The Digital Black Face”

But the concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. Elsewhere in the world there is debate about the ethics of marketing products to consumers who don’t realize models aren’t human, as well as the risk of cultural appropriation when creating influencers of different ethnicities – referred to by some as the “digital dark face”.

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

“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media has both good and bad potential. Issues of representation, cultural appropriation and free speech are already a growing concern,” the company said in a blog post.

“To help brands navigate the ethical dilemmas of this emerging medium and avoid potential dangers, (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 explodes – from metaverse and virtual reality technologies to digital currencies – companies say virtual influencers are the next frontier.

Lotte hopes Lucy will transition from advertising to entertainment, perhaps appearing in a TV drama. The company 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 its own cosmetics brand in August, as well as an NFT (non-fungible token), and the firm hopes to create a virtual pop trio to tackle the music charts.

Baik points out that most fans don’t meet real celebrities in person, only seeing them on screens. So “there’s no big difference between virtual humans and the real-life celebrities they like,” he said.

“We want to change perceptions of how people think about virtual humans,” Baik added. “What we’re doing isn’t taking jobs away from people, but doing things that humans can’t do, like working around the clock or creating unique content like walking in the sky.

The-CNN-Wire
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Cho Eun-young contributed to this report.

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