South Korea's 'virtual influencers' are never tired, forever young
Companies can create influencer posts, photo shoots and commercials at a fraction of the cost of producing one with human subjects and production staff.
August 1, 2022 8:18am
Updated: August 1, 2022 8:18am
South Korea’s computer-generated influencers never get tired, grow old or invite scandals, alarming some in a country already obsessed with youth and beauty.
“Virtual influencers” like Sidus Studio X’s Rozy straddle the real and virtual worlds, reports CNN Style. They build social media followings like their real-life counterparts: posting snapshots of their “lives” and interacting with fans.
"She's so pretty that I can't believe she's an AI,” said a female fan who began following Rozy about two years ago believing she was a real person. The two developed a “virtual friendship” after Rozy followed her back and sometimes commented on her posts.
Rozy’s account even shows her “traveling” to Singapore, where she enjoys a glass of wine on a rooftop.
Although they are computer-generated, their influence translates into real advertising dollars and sponsorship deals for their creators.
"Many big companies in Korea want to use Rozy as a model," Sidus Studio X CEO Baik Seung-yup told CNN.
"This year, we expect to easily reach over two billion Korean won ($1.52 million) in profit, just with Rozy."
Her Instagram is dotted with sponsored content for skincare and fashion products. The company has even landed deals with luxury brands like Chanel and Hermes, and her ads have appeared on TV, billboards and the sides of buses.
The technology is not new, already used in today’s entertainment and video game industries to create realistic nonhuman characters. Companies now use them to create influencer posts, photo shoots and commercials at a fraction of the cost of producing one with human subjects and production staff.
Virtual influencers are not new, either. Lil Miquela, created by an American tech start-up in 2016, has endorsed brands like Calvin Klein and Prada and now has over 3 million followers on Instagram. She was named one of Time’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet in June 2018, alongside BTS and Rihanna.
But “those in Korea are always made beautiful and pretty,” says Lee Eun-hee, a professor at Inha University’s Department of Consumer Science, while virtual influencers abroad tend to reflect a variety of ethnic backgrounds and beauty ideals.
The differing focus – perfection versus “uniqueness” – reflects different cultural values, she added.
And in a country known as the “plastic surgery capital of the world,” there are concerns that virtual influencers will make Korean society’s already unrealistic beauty standards even more unattainable.
"Real women want to become like them, and men want to date people of the same appearance," Lee Eun-hee said.
Sidius Studio X rejects this criticism. CEO Baik said Rozy isn't what "anyone would call beautiful" and that the studio had deliberately included features that are not traditionally considered attractive in Korea, like freckles and wide-set eyes.
Virtual influencers have been criticized as an avenue for cultural appropriation. In 2020, Bitch Media criticized Lil Miquela’s creators of “using Miquela’s half-Spanish and half-Brazilian design to market mixed-race identity as a form of power and cache; her curated ethnicity – specifically created to appeal to Generation Z – slots neatly into the age old ‘mestiza.’”
But the “virtual human” industry isn’t going anywhere. Rozy will be “launching” her own cosmetics brand in August, and Sidus Studio X hopes to create a virtual KPop trio one day.