Shudu Gram, a South African Instagram model with flawless dark skin and a perfectly symmetrical face, has garnered 130,000 followers since appearing on the platform a little over a year ago. She’s modeled Fenty Beauty lipstick, and she’s currently penning an editorial for a major online publication.
She also happens to be completely fake. Shudu is the computer-graphic creation of a British artist named Cameron-James Wilson, who intended her as a modest art project before social media fame took hold.
Her artificiality hasn’t stopped “countless” fashion and beauty brands from trying to contract her for product plugs, according to Wilson, who claims he’s yet to take money for a sponsorship but remains open to the idea.
“I consider all of them, but I have to think about what direction I want to go in, what direction I want Shudu to go in,” Wilson said. “It has to be fitting—I don’t want to just use it as a gimmick.”
Shudu is not alone. She’s one of a crop of virtual influencers who are challenging the notions and significance of reality on the internet. And marketers are starting to take notice.
Beca Alexander, co-founder and president of influencer agency Socialyte, said she’s been approached by multiple fashion, beauty, lifestyle and travel brands about creating a computer-generated influencer that they would then either own and operate or contract with an agency. Quoted prices range from $5,000 to $100,000 depending on the technology needed, the level of graphic detail and other specifics of the deal, Alexander said. Some contracts are actually more expensive than real-life influencers because of the technical costs involved.
In some ways, it’s an ideal scenario for brands. They get the value of an influencer with none of the headaches that often come when working with high-maintenance celebrities and inexperienced teens.
The artificial personalities are able to attract eyeballs by essentially amalgamating the most appealing features of real-life influencers—idealized attractiveness, a hip sense of fashion and maybe a propensity for drama.
“They aim for mass appeal and seem to model themselves in an almost Kardashian-eque style to mirror the pop culture of our time,” said Ryan Detert, CEO and founder of influencer marketing firm Influential.
The trend is still in its infancy, and Alexander said brands are currently more interested in testing the water—say, running an experimental campaign with nine human influencers and one virtual—than diving in all the way. Right now, Socialyte is grappling with questions like how realistically human they should be, what’s the right balance of brand promotion and actual personality and how they can manifest in spaces outside of Instagram.
The most fully developed proposal the agency has in the works involves altering a body double to fit the brand’s preferences.
“We would cast a human that would be the ideal of what this brand is looking for in terms of their perfect customer, their perfect brand ambassador,” Alexander said. “And then we’d CGI them—almost enhance them—so that they’re not recognizable as a real human.”
Brud, the startup behind the fake Instagram stars Lil Miquela and Blawko, outed itself as their creators after a contrived feud between them. Brud did not respond to requests for comment. Lil Miquela has since appeared at Prada’s fashion show and introduced a new brand-themed Giphy pack for the fashion label.
While Lil Miquela’s celebrity wasn’t entirely diminished by the revelation that a startup created her, many of these influencers’ outings have naturally led to backlash.
In Shudu’s case, Wilson was widely accused of racial appropriation. In fashion, models of color already struggle to be seen—why should a fake black woman created by a white man get such a high-profile platform? Wilson says his intent was to promote diversity in fashion, and he’s reached out to many critics to hear their concerns.
Cases like these demonstrate why brands are cautiously approaching the idea. But many are more interested in obviously computer-generated characters—e.g., fake Instagram model Noonoouri, who’s worked with Dior—than they are in potentially fooling people, according to Alexander.
In any case, however, the creators behind these virtual influencers don’t have any plans of stopping.
“I’m not yet sure if I see virtual influencers being a long-term trend,” Detert said. “The hype surrounding them will continue to generate interest among brands. Only time will tell if CGI influencers are effective and have a provable ROI.”