Why synthetic authenticity is honest fakery

Thought Leadership
Shots recently published this article by Head of Strategy, Harvey Cossell looking at the rise of synthetic influencers and how brands can prepare to play in a world of fake authenticity. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it below.

If it felt impossible to avoid influencer marketing in 2018, you might want to prepare yourself. Both momentum and backlash will continue to build as we move further into 2019; more brands working with influencer talent on one hand, more scandals and fakeries hitting the headlines on the other.

One interesting development to keep tabs on when it comes to influencer marketing is the creation of the synthetic influencer, a trend We Are Social covered in our 2019 Think Forward report.

Take Miquela Sousa – or Lil Miquela as she’s known to her 1.5 million Instagram followers. She might appear like your run-of-the-mill millennial influencer. She ticks all the right boxes. She’s edgy, fashion-conscious – she’s even released her own single. She is, however, completely fake. A digitised fiction, the brainchild of an artist whose anonymity leaves his or her motivations unclear.

Fake authenticity
Lil Miquela

Miquela and her synthetic ‘peers’ are perhaps the natural progression of online personas, an avatar writ large – albeit an entirely lifelike one – who’s sat upon a social media empire. This poses a very real question for brands. If consumers back Miquela, then does fakeness even matter? And what does this mean for authenticity – almost certainly one of the most commonly quoted (buzz)words by marketers over the last year?

The novelty – or perhaps the statement – of working with a digital fake has still been irresistible to many brands. Miquela has appeared on the cover of street culture magazine Highsnobiety and modelled for Prada, while Shudu, dubbed the ‘digital supermodel’, has strutted 3D fashion shoots and worn Balmain. While there have been instances when all hasn’t been rosy (witness the backlash to Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty), in general, these brands have enjoyed dipping their toes into the innovative unknown – and benefited from the press headlines that came with it.

Shudu, the first ‘digital supermodel’

I see synthetic authenticity as honest fakery. We know from the negative responses to some influencer advertising that people are fed up of overly contrived stories purporting to be ‘real’ content. Compared to Listerine’s incongruous product placement in Scarlett London’s bedroom, obvious fakery can feel almost refreshing. Brands need to be honest in their intentions. Being deliberately fake, and indeed owning it, speaks to avatar culture and will have a better response than inauthentically trying to make the impossible look real.

If 2018 saw a small handful of high profile synthetic influencers spring to life on screen, expect to see the trend pick up momentum in 2019. Synthetic micro-influencers, more fictional characters brought to life on social, more activities straying out of the fashion world and into the mainstream.

“Fake talent can be easier to work with and control output for.”

It’s not bad news for brands. Fake talent can be easier to work with (in as far as their creators are) and control output for. But the legal and moral lines upon which virtual influencer marketing teeters are still being drawn. Until its use becomes commonplace there will surely be pitfalls on either side, so brands need to be as clued up as possible when considering their involvement. Knowing who’s behind the influencer should be priority one; that person needs to reflect your brand values as much as, if not more so than their creation, after all they’re the ones in the driving seat.

The learning for brands here is not necessarily one of fake versus real – it’s apparent that, done properly, both are fine – but rather one of intentions. Go out with the intention of duping consumers and suffer the consequences. Give them deliberate fakery that reflects avatar culture, and you might just come across all the more real for it.