Forever young, beautiful and without scandal: the rise of virtual influencers in South Korea

She has over 130,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts photos of her travels around the world. Her makeup is always flawless, her clothes look straight off the runway. She sings, dances and models – and all this is not real.

Rosie is a South Korean “virtual influencer”, a person digitally rendered so realistically that she is often mistaken for flesh and blood.

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

According to The Seoul-based company that created her, Rosie is a mixture of all three that sit between the real and virtual worlds.

She is “capable of doing everything humans can’t… in her most human form,” according to the Sidus Studio X website.

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

Since her launch in 2020, Rosie has secured brand deals and sponsorships, walked the runway at virtual fashion shows, and even released two singles.

And she is not alone.

The “virtual person” industry is booming, and with it a whole new economy where the influencers of the future never age, never brawl and are digitally flawless, which is alarming for some in a country already obsessed with unattainable beauty standards.

How virtual influencers work

The CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology behind Rosie is not new. It is ubiquitous in the modern entertainment industry, where artists use it to create realistic non-human characters in films, computer games, and music videos.

But only recently has it been used to create influencers.

Sometimes Sidus Studio X creates a head-to-toe image of Rosie using this technology, and this approach works well for her Instagram images. On other occasions, her head is superimposed on the human model’s body, such as when she is modeling clothes.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual person used by Lotte Home Shopping.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual person used by Lotte Home Shopping. Credits: Courtesy of Lotte Home Shopping

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

Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers are gaining popularity through social media, where they post snapshots of their “life” and interact with their fans. Rosie’s account shows her “traveling” around Singapore and enjoying a glass of wine on a rooftop while her fans compliment her outfits.

older generations may find communication with an artificial person somewhat strange. But experts say virtual influencers have resonated with young Koreans. digital natives who spend most of their lives on the internet.

Lee Na Kyung, a 23-year-old girl from Incheon, started following Rosie about two years ago, thinking she was a real person.

Rosie followed her, sometimes commenting on her posts, and a virtual friendship blossomed that lasted even after Lee found out the truth.

“We talked like friends and I was comfortable with her, so I consider her not an artificial intelligence, but a true friend, ”said Lee.

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

Profitable business

Social media doesn’t just allow virtual influencers to build a fan base, it’s where the money flows.

Rosie Instagram, for example, is littered with sponsored content where she promotes skincare and fashion products.

“A lot of big companies in Korea want to use Rosie as a model,” Baik Seung Yup, CEO of Sidus Studio X, said with only Rosie.

He added that as Rosie became more popular, the company received more sponsorship from luxury brands such as Chanel and Hermes, as well as magazines and other media companies. Her ads have now appeared on television and even in offline spaces such as billboards and the sides of buses.

Lotte expects a similar profit this year from Lucy, which has attracted promotional offers from finance and construction companies, according to Lee Bo-hyun, director of media business at Lotte Home Shopping.

Models are in high demand because they help brands reach younger consumers, experts say. Rosie’s clients include a life insurance firm and a bank, companies generally considered old-fashioned. “But they say that after working with Rosie, their image has become very young,” Bike said.

It also helps that, compared to some of their real life counterparts, these new stars don’t require much maintenance.

Lotte and Sidus Studio X required from several hours and a couple of days to create the image of their stars, and from two days to several weeks for a commercial. This is much less time and labor than required. for advertising productions with real people, where weeks or months can be spent locating and preparing logistics such as lighting, hair and make-up, styling, catering and post-production editing.

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

According to Lee, Lotte chose the virtual influencer when she was thinking about how to maximize her “host shows”.

Lotte Home Shopping hires people to advertise products on TV, but they are “pretty expensive” and “changes with age,” Lee said. So, they came up with Lucy, who is “forever 29 years old”.

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

Question about beauty

South Korea isn’t the only place with virtual influencers.

Some of the world’s most famous virtual influencers include Lil Michela, created by the co-founders of an American tech startup that endorses brands like Calvin Klein and Prada and has over 3 million Instagram followers; Lu of Magalu, created by a Brazilian retailer with nearly 6 million Instagram followers; and FNMeka, a rapper created by music company Factory New with over 10 million followers on TikTok.

But there’s one major 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 people elsewhere have a “uniqueness,” while “people in Korea are always made beautiful and cute… (reflecting) the values ​​of each country,” she added.

An image of Rosie, a virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

An image of Rosie, a virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credits: Sidus Studio X

And in South Korea, which is often called the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its boom. $10.7 billion industry — there are concerns that virtual influencers could further fuel unrealistic beauty standards.
Young Koreans began to resist these ideals. in recent years, sparking a movement in 2018 dubbed “corset escape.”

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

And these traits are shared by most of the country’s virtual influencers; Lucy has perfect skin, long shiny hair, a thin jaw and a perky nose. Rosie has full lips, long legs and a flat belly that peeks out from under crop tops.

Lee Eun Hee warned that virtual influencers like Rosie and Lucy could make Korea’s already demanding beauty standards even more unattainable and increase demand for plastic surgery or beauty products among women seeking to emulate them.

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

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual person used by Lotte Home Shopping.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual person used by Lotte Home Shopping. Credits: Courtesy of Lotte Home Shopping

The creators of Rosie and Lucy dismiss such criticism.

Lotte spokesperson Lee Bo-hyun said they tried to make Lucy more than just a “beautiful image” by creating an elaborate backstory and personality. She studied industrial design and is engaged in car design. She writes about her work and interests, such as her love for animals and kimbap, rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. As such, “Lucy strives to be a good influence in society,” Lee said, adding, “She lets people know, ‘Do what you want, according to your beliefs.’

Bike, CEO of Sidus Studio X, said that Rosie was not beautiful, and that the firm deliberately tried to make her look unique and deviate from traditional Korean norms. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her wide-set eyes.

“Rosie is showing people the importance of inner confidence,” he added. “There are other virtual people who are so beautiful… but I made Rosie to show that you can still be beautiful (even without a conventionally attractive face).”

“Digital Blackface”

But the concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. Elsewhere in the world there are debates about the ethics of marketing products to consumers who do not realize that the models are not human, and the risk of cultural appropriation when creating influencers of different nationalities, which some refer to as “digital blackface.

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 can do both good and bad. 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 challenges of this new environment 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 isn’t going anywhere. As interest in the digital world grows, ranging from metaverse and virtual reality technology to digital currencies — companies say virtual influencers are the next frontier.
An image of Rosie, a virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

An image of Rosie, a virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credits: Sidus Studio X

Lotte hopes Lucy will move from commercials to entertainment, perhaps by starring in a TV drama. The firm is also working on a virtual human that will appeal to customers aged 40 to 60.

Sidus Studio X has big ambitions too; In August, Rosie will launch her own cosmetics brand, as well as NFT (non-fungible token), and the firm hopes to create a virtual pop trio that will top the music charts.

Bike notes that most fans don’t meet real celebrities in person, but only see them on screen. So “there is not much difference between virtual people and real celebrities that they like,” he said.

“We want to change the way people think about virtual people,” Bike added. “We don’t do things to take people’s jobs, but to do things that people can’t do, like work 24/7 or create unique content like sky walks.