Can Virtual Influencers Be Just As Authentic As The Real Thing?

Ogilvy's global head of influence argues that the future is AI and virtual influencers. But for that we need the right safeguards

By Rahul Titus

I want us all to embrace AI. It's not the enemy. At Ogilvy, we are are not trying to fight AI. Why would we? AI makes our work so much better and faster. For instance, it's already in all the infrastructure we do with influencer marketing. Everything from identifying creators to the payment systems and the whole CMS platforms we use are all AI-powered. AI is an enabler and you have the option to either bring it in and really embrace it, or you fight it. But we need to embrace it.

At Ogilvy, we're at the very start of the AI journey and creating campaigns driven by AI that are winning accolades and awards. For example the work we did for Cadbury in India, which won the Grand Prix last year and a Titanium this year at Cannes Lions, is fully AI-powered. We created a deepfake of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan and then allowed small businesses to use this digital avatar of the actor to promote their goods. The campaign licensed deepfake of the celebrity in hyper personalised ads at scale. In this case, Shahrukh Khan's not creating 10 million ads for us, we are licensing the deepfake for it. And that's AI technology in play in celebrity marketing.

And in Brazil we created a virtual influencer called Lu for retail brand Magalu, in 2014. She's bigger than Barbie now in that market. She's been on the cover of Vogue magazine. For a pop culture celebrity and a fashion icon virtual influencer, Lu actually looks very real and somewhat scary. And talking of scary - the 'dead eyes' on virtual influencers will become more real and we're getting to a stage when we'll not be able to see the difference between the real and the fake.

Authenticity Vs Fakery

We're starting to see how AI is used by people to deceive. Remember the deepfake of the Pope in a Balenciaga white puffer coat back in February? Somebody, somewhere created this image, and for two full days, nobody knew if that was real or fake because it was so real. It was so close to reality; you would almost believe it. Because you could imagine the Pope being able to afford Balenciaga. It's an Italian brand. It's so close to reality that people actually believed it.

But I fundamentally believe that people trust people. That’s the reality of influencer marketing. If you take trust and authenticity away, the foundation on which Influence is built, then the whole channel becomes questionable.

To safeguard the authenticity of influencer marketing, we [Ogilvy] have initiated the AI Accountability Act. This act seeks to mandate the disclosure of AI influencer content by advertising, PR, and social media agencies.

The responsibility of transparency extends beyond agencies. The Act calls for advertising trade bodies, including the likes of ASA and IMDb, to adopt policies that ensure the disclosure of AI influencer content. By unifying the industry, we can collectively maintain the trust and credibility that influencer marketing has cultivated.

Though widespread adoption will take time, we already have the necessary technology, making it a straightforward request to implement a tag indicating AI influencer content, similar to disclosing paid partnerships. While awaiting policy changes, Ogilvy has taken interim measures for transparency. We use the hashtag #poweredbyai when collaborating with AI influencers. Additionally, we offer a watermark option for creators until social media platforms establish a dedicated tag for AI influencer content. These measures are essential, with the ultimate responsibility resting on the platforms themselves.

The AI Accountability Act preserves authenticity and trust in influencer marketing by addressing the disclosure of AI influencer content. This essential step safeguards the core principles that make influencer campaigns impactful and ensures their authenticity and credibility. Focusing on AI influencers, who contribute to 76 per cent of current social media content, is crucial. They hold significant influence in shaping the landscape. As influencers are integral to our marketing plans and valued by brands for their effectiveness, addressing this aspect promptly resolves a substantial part of the issue.

We're doing this now because of how fast influencer marketing is growing. Influencer marketing is world's fastest growing channel. It's growing 300 per cent year-on-year, that's faster than social media ever grew. I've been working in this space for 12 years and no two days are the same. And that's why we're acting now.

Ethics and Responsibility

I can predict that almost 20 to 30 per cent of all the work we're going to be doing as an agency in the next two to three years is going to be AI influencer work, because it gives brands space and scale and allows personalisation. We are just at the start of that journey.

In Asia, however, brands are already way ahead in terms of how they are using virtual influence in their marketing. The same holds true for Latin America. North American and EMEA markets are only just catching up. But jumping in headfirst isn’t the way. It is important that agencies and brands consider real-world context before jumping into digital executions with AI and when using virtual influencers.

As the industry continues to evolve, Ogilvy remains steadfast in ensuring the responsible and effective use of AI influencers while preserving the essential values of trust and credibility.

By embracing AI as an enabler, we harness its power to elevate our influencer marketing efforts. It is the future.

Rahul Titus is the global head of influence at Ogilvy


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