Bella Hadid recently made headlines with an advertisement in which she appeared to kiss another woman. However, she never kissed anyone at all. The person with whom she shared the passionate embrace was not actually a person, but rather a collection of pixels, per The New York Times.
Her name is Miquela Sousa, but goes by Lil Miquela, and is a computer generated image. Despite the fact that she does not exist, she nonetheless has 1.6 million followers on Instagram on which she posts pictures with fake backstories.
"I've been through a lot in the past year. Finding out a lot of unexpected stuff about myself and my origins made it REALLY hard to stay grounded," read a caption for a picture that advertises candles.
It all seemed so lifelike that the casual observer would probably have thought Miquela was real. But she is part of the rise of virtual influencers, a growing body of computer generated images helping companies sell their products.
"Avatars are a future of storytelling," said Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and "grandfather" to virtual influencer Qai Qai. He is also the husband to tennis champion Serena Williams.
"Brands like working with avatars — they don't have to do 100 takes," he explained.Fashion labels that have used virtual models include Balmain, which created a squad of "virtual troops" to model its clothing line. KFC also recently got into the trend, creating a Colonel Sanders that poked fun at the world of social media by reimagining the icon as a tattooed silver fox with bulging muscles and a "perpetually unbuttoned white jacket." Video game characters have also become a popular choice for advertisers such as Coca-Cola and Louis Vuitton.
But the rise of the virtual influencer is starting to creep onto other areas. For example, Xinhua, the Chinese government's media outlet, recently introduced a virtual news anchor. The primary reason for this change, the source said, was that she could "work 24 hours a day." Another company is creating computer-generated teachers who can teach and reply to human students.
Edward Saatchi, who started a "virtual beings" company called Fable, believes that in the future, said virtual beings will take the place of home assistants and computer operating systems.
"Eventually, it will be clear that the line between a Miquela and an Alexa [Amazon's home assistant] is actually very slim," he told The Gray Lady.
"It's an interesting and dangerous time, seeing the potency of A.I. and its ability to fake anything," Ohanian said.