Young Koreans fall in love with ‘virtual internet celebrities’

Virtual influencer Rozy. Image credit Sidus Studio X

Comprehensive compilation Jia Xiaojing

She has 130,000 followers on Instagram and likes to post beautiful photos of her round-the-world travels. She is good at singing, dancing, and works part-time as a model. In the photo, this girl has impeccable makeup, stylish clothing, and looks like she just walked off the runway…

Everything is perfect, but nothing is true.

The rising Instagram star named Rozy is a well-known “virtual influencer” in South Korea. She is not a real person with flesh and blood, but a digitally rendered image. Just by looking at the photos, it’s hard for people to notice how different this girl is from the real person.

Even fans who know Rozy’s “life experience” have a hard time understanding her true identity. “Are you real? Are you an artificial intelligence, or a robot?” fans commented under the photo. Many people have this question.

The answer given by Rozy’s production company, Sidus Studio X, is “all three.” The production staff said that the presentation of the avatar “straddles reality and fantasy.”

virtual people real influence

Since debuting in 2020, Rozy has received numerous brand collaborations and sponsorships. She walked the runway on a virtual fashion show and also released two singles. “She can do things that humans cannot in the closest possible way…” Sidus Studio X wrote on its website. The company is said to have earned billions of won in advertising and entertainment from “non-human idols”.

Rozy isn’t the only virtual influencer in South Korea. According to CNN, as a new industry, virtual influencers are rapidly rising in South Korea. Their popularity is based on an alternative expectation from fans: “celebrities who never get old, never have scandals”.

“They have to be flawless. This is what a country obsessed with ‘unattainable beauty’ needs, although that need has alarmed some,” CNN wrote.

The computer-generated imagery technology behind Rozy is not new and has long been used in the modern entertainment industry. In the past, artists have mostly used this technique to make movies, computer games and music videos, creating many lifelike non-human characters. Only recently has this technique been used to shape influencers.

Like real-life influencers, virtual influencers accumulate followers through social media. They post “life photos” on social media and interact with fans. Rozy wrote on Instagram that she “traveled” to Singapore to “drink” on the rooftop. Under the photo, fans are full of praise for her outfit.

In the eyes of the older generation, it’s always a little strange that real people are willing to interact with “artificial people” frequently. But experts say virtual influencers resonate so much with young South Koreans based on one important factor: Younger Gen Zers are digital natives who spend most of their time online.

The BBC believes that part of the reason for the popularity of digital personalities is that their true identities are shrouded in mystery.

Li Naqing, 23, who lives in Incheon, South Korea, started following Rozy about two years ago, thinking she was real. Rozy followed her quickly, sometimes commenting on her posts. A virtual friendship started from then on, and even if Li Naqing later discovered the truth about Rozy, the friendship remained the same.

“We communicate like friends, and I feel very comfortable with her, so I don’t think she is an artificial intelligence. I regard her as a real friend.” Li Naqing said that Rozy’s beauty makes people forget her origin.

The market has huge demand for virtual influencers

Social media brings not only a large number of fans to virtual influencers, but also a steady stream of money. Rozy’s Instagram page is full of advertisements for her skincare and fashion products. Bai Chengye, a representative of Sidus Studio X, said that many Korean companies use Rozy as a role model: “We estimate that this year, Rozy alone can easily make a profit of 2 billion won (about 10.05 million yuan).”

Bai Chengye told CNN that as Rozy became popular, the company received more and more sponsorships from luxury brands including Chanel and Hermès, as well as media companies such as magazines. “Her commercials have appeared on TV and even in offline spaces like billboards and buses,” he said.

Not long ago, Lotte Home Shopping, a well-known retail brand in South Korea, launched its own virtual influencer. The company’s best-known virtual influencer, Lucy, has 78,000 followers on Instagram and is expected to bring in profits comparable to Rozy’s this year, Li Baoxian, director of the company’s media division, told CNN. The difference is that Lucy’s advertising business mainly comes from financial circles and construction companies.

Experts believe that there is a huge demand for virtual Internet celebrities in the Korean market, and many companies need to rely on virtual Internet celebrities to shorten the distance between them and young consumers. In Rozy’s case, her clients include a life insurance company and a bank, often seen as representatives of the old school. Bai Chengye said that traditional companies are very willing to cooperate with virtual Internet celebrities: “They said that after cooperating with Rozy, the image of the company has become younger.”

Compared with real stars, the maintenance cost of virtual influencers is very low.

Rakuten and Sidus Studio X take a few hours to a few days to create a star image, and two days to several weeks to create a video ad. This is much less time and labor cost than creating live-action ads. Shooting a live-action commercial can take weeks or even months of preparation, such as finding locations, arranging lighting, styling, catering, and post-editing.

One of the big advantages of virtual influencers over real stars is that they don’t age, get bored, or cause controversy. “Considering the maximization of benefits, (we) chose virtual Internet celebrities.” Li Baoxian said.

The BBC pointed out that a large part of the appeal of virtual influencers comes from “it can provide creative space for creators and participants”. “Lucy is always 29 years old… She is not limited by time and space, can appear anywhere, and will not cause moral problems.” Li Baoxian said.

Will they contribute to a “harsh aesthetic”?

South Korea isn’t the only country welcoming virtual influencers. At present, the most famous virtual influencers in the world include Lil Miquela, founded by the co-founder of a technology start-up company in the United States. She has endorsed brands such as Calvin Klein and Prada, and has more than 3 million followers on Instagram; Lu of Magalu is a Brazilian retail company. Created, has nearly 6 million followers on Instagram; FNMeka, a rapper created by music company Factory New, has more than 10 million followers on TikTok.

Lee Eun-hee, a professor at the Department of Consumer Science at Inha University in South Korea, believes that the main difference between these “traffic stars” is that their respective national backgrounds reflect different nationalities and aesthetic ideals. “Virtual people have their own uniqueness, and Korean virtual people are always made more and more beautiful,” which reflects “the values ​​of this country.”

South Korea’s beauty industry is worth $10.7 billion and is known as the “World Plastic Surgery Center”. In South Korea, many are concerned that virtual influencers further push unrealistic aesthetic standards. In 2018, South Korea launched a campaign to “escape the corset” to encourage women to get rid of their appearance anxiety. For Korean women, beauty usually means petite stature, big eyes, small face and fair skin, CNN said.

“Most of the virtual influencers in this country have the above characteristics,” CNN wrote. “Lucy has perfect skin, long smooth hair, a beautiful chin and a straight nose. Rozy has plump lips, long legs, and an exposed navel. The flat stomach is exposed under the top.”

Professor Lee Eun-hee warned that virtual influencers like Rozy and Lucy could escalate South Korea’s already demanding aesthetic standards and could prompt women eager to look like them to seek medical attention. “[Ultimately] women want to be like them, and men want to date people who look like them.”

The creators of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.

Li Baoxian said that they are carefully designing a richer background story and personality for Lucy, trying to make her not just a “vase”. “She studied industrial design and worked in the car design industry. She likes to post content related to her work and interests, for example, she likes animals and loves to eat kimbap. In this way, Lucy is trying to deliver a good social impact. She Bring the message to the public: Follow your beliefs and do what you want.”

Bai Chengye emphasized that the freckles on Rozy’s face did not conform to the traditional Korean aesthetic, and the designer deliberately gave her a unique appearance. “Rozy showed people the importance of being inside and being confident,” he said. “Many virtual people are very beautiful…but I created Rozy to show people that you can still be beautiful without a traditionally glamorous face.”

Virtual Internet celebrity may become a frontier field

People’s concerns about virtual influencers have long gone beyond the category of “aesthetics.” Elsewhere in the world, there are concerns about the ethics of their marketing to real consumers and the risk of cultural appropriation in creating virtual influencers of different ethnicities.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which has created more than 200 virtual people, admits there are risks involved. “Like all other disruptive technologies, virtual influencers have both positive and negative possibilities. They raise concerns about representation, cultural appropriation, etc.,” Meta said, in order to help brands deal with these ethics Dilemma, the company will develop an “ethical framework” to guide the use of virtual influencers.

Controversy continues, but one thing is clear: The industry is here to stay. According to CNN, with the growing interest in the digital world, virtual influencers are likely to become the next frontier after the Metaverse, VR/AR, and digital currencies.

Rakuten hopes that Lucy will continue to expand the business, and maybe in the near future, she will star in a TV series. The company is creating another virtual human, targeting consumers in their 40s and 60s. Sidus Studio X plans to create a virtual 3-member girl group to “capture” the music charts.

Bai Chengye told CNN that most fans haven’t seen celebrities in person, but have only seen them through the screen. From this perspective, “there’s not much difference between virtual idols and real celebrities that people like.”

“We want to change the way people think about virtual humans… We’re not taking people’s jobs, we’re (making virtual people) do things humans can’t, like work 24 hours a day, or walk in the clouds.” He Say.

Source: Client of China Youth Daily