Forever younger, lovely and scandal-free: The rise of South Korea’s digital influencers

She’s obtained greater than 130,000 followers on Instagram, the place she posts pictures of her globetrotting adventures. Her make-up is at all times impeccable, her garments look straight off the runway. She sings, dances and fashions — and none of it’s actual.

Rozy is a South Korean “virtual influencer,” a digitally rendered human so practical she is commonly mistaken for flesh and blood.

“Are you a real person?” one in every of her Instagram followers asks. “Are you an AI? Or a robot?”

In accordance with the Seoul-based firm that created her, Rozy is a mix of all three who straddles the true and digital worlds.

She is “able to do everything that humans cannot … in the most human-like form,” Sidus Studio X says on its web site.

That features raking in income for the corporate within the multibillion-dollar promoting and leisure worlds.

Since her launch in 2020, Rozy has landed model offers and sponsorships, strutted the runway in digital style reveals and even launched two singles.

And she or he’s not alone.

The “virtual human” business is booming, and with it a complete new economic system by which the influencers of the longer term are never-aging, scandal-free and digitally flawless — sparking alarm amongst some in a rustic already obsessive about unobtainable magnificence requirements.

How digital influencers work

The CGI (computer-generated imagery) know-how behind Rozy is not new. It’s ubiquitous in as we speak’s leisure business, the place artists use it to craft practical nonhuman characters in motion pictures, laptop video games and music movies.

However it has solely not too long ago been used to make influencers.

Generally, Sidus Studio X creates a picture of Rozy from head to toe utilizing the know-how, an method that works effectively for her Instagram pictures. Different occasions it superimposes her head onto the physique of a human mannequin — when she fashions clothes, as an illustration.

A picture of Lucy, the Korean digital human utilized by Lotte Dwelling Procuring. Credit score: Courtesy Lotte Dwelling Procuring

South Korean retail model Lotte Dwelling Procuring created its digital influencer — Lucy, who has 78,000 Instagram followers — with software program often used for video video games.

Like their real-life counterparts, digital influencers construct a following by way of social media, the place they submit snapshots of their “lives” and work together with their followers. Rozy’s account reveals her “traveling” to Singapore and having fun with a glass of wine on a rooftop whereas her followers praise her outfits.

Older generations would possibly contemplate interacting with a man-made individual considerably odd. However specialists say digital influencers have struck a chord with youthful Koreans, digital natives who spend a lot of their lives on-line.

Lee Na-kyoung, a 23-year-old residing in Incheon, started following Rozy about two years in the past pondering she was an actual individual.

Rozy adopted her again, typically commenting on her posts, and a digital friendship blossomed — one which has endured even after Lee discovered the reality.

“We communicated like friends and I felt comfortable with her — so I don’t think of her as an AI but a real friend,” Lee mentioned.

“I love Rozy’s content,” Lee added. “She’s so pretty that I can’t believe she’s an AI.”

A worthwhile enterprise

Social media does not simply allow digital influencers to construct a fanbase — it is the place the cash rolls in.

Rozy’s Instagram, as an illustration, is dotted with sponsored content material the place she advertises skincare and style merchandise.

“Many big companies in Korea want to use Rozy as a model,” mentioned Baik Seung-yup, the CEO of Sidus Studio X. “This year, we expect to easily reach over two billion Korean won (about $1.52 million) in profit, just with Rozy.”

He added that as Rozy grew extra standard, the corporate landed extra sponsorships from luxurious manufacturers akin to Chanel and Hermes, in addition to magazines and different media corporations. Her advertisements have now appeared on tv, and even in offline areas like billboards and the perimeters of buses.

Lotte expects related income this yr from Lucy, who has introduced in promoting presents from monetary and building corporations, in line with Lee Bo-hyun, the director of Lotte Dwelling Procuring’s media enterprise division.

The fashions are in excessive demand as a result of they assist manufacturers attain youthful shoppers, specialists say. Rozy’s purchasers embody a life insurance coverage agency and a financial institution — corporations sometimes seen as old school. “But they say their image has become very young after working with Rozy,” Baik mentioned.

It additionally helps that, in comparison with a few of their real-life counterparts, these new stars are low-maintainance.

It takes Lotte and Sidus Studio X between a number of hours and a few days to create a picture of their stars, and from two days to some weeks for a video business. That is far much less time and labor than is required to provide a business that includes actual people — the place weeks or months may be spent location scouting and getting ready logistics akin to lighting, hair and make-up, styling, catering and post-production modifying.

And, maybe simply as vital: digital influencers by no means age, tire or invite controversy.

Lotte selected a digital influencer when contemplating the best way to maximize its “show hosts,” mentioned Lee.

Lotte Dwelling Procuring hires human hosts to promote merchandise on TV — however they “cost quite a lot,” and “there will be changes when they age,” Lee mentioned. So, they got here up with Lucy, who’s “forever 29 years old.”

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

A query about magnificence

South Korea is not the one place to have embraced digital influencers.

Among the many world’s most well-known digital influencers are Lil Miquela, created by the co-founders of an American tech startup, who has endorsed manufacturers together with Calvin Klein and Prada and has greater than 3 million Instagram followers; Lu of Magalu, created by a Brazilian retail firm, with practically 6 million Instagram followers; and FNMeka, a rapper created by music firm Manufacturing facility New, with greater than 10 million TikTok followers.

However there’s one main distinction, in line with Lee Eun-hee, a professor at Inha College’s Division of Shopper Science: digital influencers in different international locations are likely to mirror a variety of ethnic backgrounds and wonder beliefs.

Digital people elsewhere have a “uniqueness,” whereas “those in Korea are always made beautiful and pretty … (reflecting) the values of each country,” she added.

An image of Rozy, the virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

A picture of Rozy, the digital influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credit score: Sidus Studio X

And in South Korea — usually dubbed the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its booming $10.7 billion business — there are issues that digital influencers might additional gas unrealistic magnificence requirements.
Youthful Koreans have begun pushing again in opposition to these beliefs lately, sparking a motion in 2018 dubbed “escaping the corset.”

However concepts of what’s popularly thought of lovely within the nation stay slim; for ladies, this often means a petite determine with massive eyes, a small face and pale, clear pores and skin.

And these options are shared by a lot of the nation’s digital influencers; Lucy has good pores and skin, lengthy shiny hair, a slender jaw and a perky nostril. Rozy has full lips, lengthy legs and a flat abdomen peeking out below her crop tops.

Lee Eun-hee warned that digital influencers like Rozy and Lucy might be making Korea’s already demanding magnificence requirements much more unattainable — and heightening the demand for cosmetic surgery or beauty merchandise amongst ladies looking for to emulate them.

“Real women want to become like them, and men want to date people of the same appearance,” she mentioned.

An image of Lucy, the Korean virtual human used by Lotte Home Shopping.

A picture of Lucy, the Korean digital human utilized by Lotte Dwelling Procuring. Credit score: Courtesy Lotte Dwelling Procuring

The creators of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.

Lotte consultant Lee Bo-hyun mentioned that they had tried to make Lucy greater than only a “pretty image” by crafting an elaborate again story and character. She studied industrial design, and works in automobile design. She posts about her job and pursuits, akin to her love for animals and kimbap — rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. On this means, “Lucy is striving to have a good influence in society,” Lee mentioned, including: “She’s giving a message to the public to ‘do what you want to do according to your beliefs.'”

Baik, the Sidus Studio X CEO, mentioned Rozy is not what “anyone would call beautiful” and that the agency had intentionally tried to make her look distinctive and veer away from conventional Korean norms. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her wide-set eyes.

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

‘Digital blackface’

However issues transcend Korean magnificence requirements. Elsewhere on this planet there’s debate over the ethics of promoting merchandise to shoppers who do not understand the fashions aren’t human, in addition to the chance of cultural appropriation when creating influencers of various ethnicities — labeled by some as “digital blackface.”

Fb and Instagram’s guardian firm Meta, which has greater than 200 digital influencers on its platforms, has acknowledged the dangers.

“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media has the potential for both good and harm. Issues of representation, cultural appropriation and expressive liberty are already a growing concern,” the corporate mentioned in a weblog submit.

“To help brands navigate the ethical quandaries of this emerging medium and avoid potential hazards, (Meta) is working with partners to develop an ethical framework to guide the use of (virtual influencers).”

However one factor seems clear: the business is right here to remain. As curiosity within the digital world booms — starting from the metaverse and digital actuality applied sciences to digital currencies — corporations say digital influencers are the following frontier.
An image of Rozy, the virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

A picture of Rozy, the digital influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credit score: Sidus Studio X

Lotte is hoping Lucy will transfer from promoting to leisure, maybe by showing in a tv drama. The agency can be engaged on a digital human that can attraction to buyers of their 40s to 60s.

Sidus Studio X has massive ambitions, too; Rozy will launch her personal cosmetics model in August, in addition to an NFT (non-fungible token), and the agency hopes to create a digital pop trio to tackle the music charts.

Baik factors out that the majority followers do not meet actual celebrities in individual, solely seeing them on screens. So “there is no big difference between virtual humans and the real-life celebrities they like,” he mentioned.

“We want to change perceptions of how people think of virtual humans,” Baik added. “What we do is not to remove individuals’s jobs, however to do issues that people cannot do, akin to work 24 hours or make distinctive content material like strolling within the sky.