Consumers’ Responses to Virtual Influencers as Advertising Endorsers: Novel and Effective or Uncanny and Deceiving?
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The rise of virtual influencers: From pixels to popularity, it’s all just a digital charade!

Virtual influencers reshape influencer marketing. Consumer reactions vary, embracing novelty or dismissing as eerie and inauthentic. Product category plays a role in virtual endorsement success.

The advent of virtual influencers signals a fresh epoch in which innovative technologies, particularly Artificial Intelligence, profoundly reshape the world of influencer marketing and advertising. These virtual figures have attracted significant attention in recent years. Their widespread appeal lies in their ability to engage online audiences fascinated by the increasingly blurred line between reality and the virtual realm. As these virtual influencers accrue millions of followers and land profitable brand collaborations, they ignite debates concerning the future trajectory of influencer marketing. How do consumers react to these virtual influencers? Will they embrace their novelty and originality or dismiss them as eerie and inauthentic?

Virtual influencers as marketing endorsers

Virtual influencers may be characterised as digitally engineered entities, often imbued with fictitious lives, sophisticated personalities, and the ability to convey emotions. The virtual influencer currently commanding the most attention, with a fan base of 2.8 million on Instagram, is Lil Miquela, who “identifies” as a half-Brazilian, half-Spanish female hailing from Los Angeles and has earned recognition as one of the 25 Most Influential People on the Internet by Time magazine.

Virtual influencers like Lil Miquela have emerged as favoured brand endorsers, offering numerous benefits. The influencers and their posts can be meticulously tailored to align with the brand’s character. Moreover, a virtual influencer’s potential risk of embroiling in a scandal and damaging the brand’s image is virtually non-existent. Additionally, there’s the promise of future cost efficiency and the novelty factor, particularly when targeting a younger demographic. Nevertheless, scant research has been conducted on consumer reactions to virtual influencers. In two studies, we explored consumer responses to virtual influencers compared to their human counterparts and assessed their impact on advertising efficacy.

How do virtual influencers compare to human ones?

In examining how virtual influencers might measure up against their human counterparts, we drew upon the theories of algorithm aversion and the uncanny valley. Algorithm aversion pertains to the general hesitancy of individuals to place trust in algorithmically-derived decisions or recommendations, demonstrating a preference for human judgment. This reticence can be present even when algorithms consistently outperform human decision-making, underlining the ingrained psychological predilection of humans for their kind.

The uncanny valley theory postulates that as humanoid robots or digital characters become increasingly anthropomorphic, there exists a point where they provoke a sense of discomfort or disquiet in observers. This sensation occurs when the approximation to human likeness is close yet imperfect. The uncanny valley effect may also come into play when consumers are uncertain whether an entity is virtual or human. This category ambiguity is incited when an entity shifts between one category and another. When individuals grapple with determining the true nature of such an ambiguous entity, negative evaluations are likely to be elicited.

How do virtual influencers compare to human ones?
Credit. Midjourney

In our first study, we juxtaposed a virtual influencer ad with a human influencer ad for a cosmetics brand, with the nature of the influencer either disclosed or undisclosed. We discovered that the attitude towards the human influencer and the human influencer ad was decidedly more positive than towards their virtual counterpart. Nevertheless, the virtual influencer was regarded as more novel, enhancing the perceived innovation of the advertised brand.

Furthermore, we observed that without disclosing the influencer’s virtual nature, it becomes arduous for consumers to distinguish it from a human. Intriguingly, without disclosure, the virtual influencer attracted higher uncanniness ratings than when its virtual status was openly declared. Our initial findings suggest that virtual influencers should always be clearly labeled to diminish the perception of uncanniness and prevent potential consumer deception. Additionally, virtual influencers can impart a sense of novelty, enhancing the perception of a brand’s innovativeness.

Does the product category play a role?

In our subsequent study, we sought to ascertain whether certain product categories might be more amenable to virtual endorsement. We grounded our assumptions on the so-called match-up hypothesis. This hypothesis proposes that individuals are more susceptible to persuasive messages when there is harmony between the communicator’s attributes (in this case, the influencer) and the substance or nature of the message itself (the advertisement).

Consequently, in our second study, we crafted an advertisement featuring either a virtual or human influencer endorsing a cosmetic product (body lotion) or a technical product (smart speaker). The results corroborated our anticipation that perceived congruence is higher when a virtual influencer endorses a technical product rather than a cosmetic one. A greater level of congruence subsequently led to enhanced perceived expertise of the endorser and a more positive attitude towards the ad. From a managerial perspective, we infer that brands with a technical product range, new product launches, or brands aiming to convey innovation can derive benefit from the deployment of virtual influencers.

Future research demand

The subject of virtual influencers is set to gain further relevance as their influence on marketing strategies and consumer behaviour continues to evolve and broaden. Numerous other facets concerning the impact of virtual influencers warrant exploration in future research. For instance, do attitudes towards the influencer and the advertising shift if the influencer is given a ‘personality’ crafted through a so-called human backstory? Do consumers favour virtual influencers immediately recognisable as virtual or those that closely resemble humans? There remains a significant demand for additional research to fully comprehend the implications, efficacy, and ethical issues associated with virtual influencers, which will provide much-needed insights for brands and marketing executives.

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Journal reference

Franke, C., Groeppel-Klein, A., & Müller, K. (2022). Consumers’ Responses to Virtual Influencers as Advertising Endorsers: Novel and Effective or Uncanny and Deceiving?. Journal of Advertising, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.2022.2154721

Claudia Franke is currently a PhD candidate at the Chair of Marketing and Institute for Consumer & Behavioural Research under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Groeppel-Klein at Saarland University. Her doctoral research focuses on consumer reactions towards virtual influencers. Part of her research on the comparison of virtual and human influencers was recently published in the Journal of Advertising. She teaches marketing and consumer behavior at BSc and MSc levels.

Prof. Dr. Andrea Gröppel-Klein is the Chair of Marketing and Director of the Institute of Consumer & Behavioural Research at Saarland University since 2006. She obtained her PhD from the University of Paderborn and has held various academic positions, including the Chair of International Marketing, Consumer Behaviour, and Retailing at the European University Viadrina. She has served as a Visiting Professor at several universities in Europe and actively participates in academic conferences and associations such as the Association for Consumer Research. Throughout her career, she has published numerous articles in reputable international journals and has secured funding for research projects from the European Union and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Apart from her academic work, she has been involved in knowledge transfer activities, serving on advisory boards and collaborating with various enterprises, particularly in the consumer goods sector.

Katrin Mueller is a former masters student at the Chair of Marketing and Institute for Consumer and Behavioural Research, Saarland University.