Endlessly 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 all the time impeccable, her garments look straight off the runway. She sings, dances and fashions — and none of it’s actual.

Rozy is a South Korean “digital influencer,” a digitally rendered human so reasonable she is usually mistaken for flesh and blood.

“Are you an actual individual?” certainly one of her Instagram followers asks. “Are you an AI? Or a robotic?”

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

She is “capable of do the whole lot that people can’t … in probably the most human-like kind,” 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 he or she’s not alone.

The “digital human” trade is booming, and with it a complete new economic system by which the influencers of the long run 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) expertise behind Rozy is not new. It’s ubiquitous in in the present day’s leisure trade, the place artists use it to craft reasonable nonhuman characters in films, pc video games and music movies.

But it surely has solely lately been used to make influencers.

Typically, Sidus Studio X creates a picture of Rozy from head to toe utilizing the expertise, an strategy that works nicely for her Instagram photographs. Different occasions it superimposes her head onto the physique of a human mannequin — when she fashions clothes, as an example.

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

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

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

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

Older generations may contemplate interacting with a synthetic individual considerably odd. However consultants 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 considering 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 came upon the reality.

“We communicated like pals and I felt comfy together with her — so I do not consider her as an AI however an actual good friend,” Lee mentioned.

“I like Rozy’s content material,” Lee added. “She’s so fairly that I am unable to consider 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 example, is dotted with sponsored content material the place she advertises skincare and style merchandise.

“Many huge corporations in Korea need to use Rozy as a mannequin,” mentioned Baik Seung-yup, the CEO of Sidus Studio X. “This yr, we anticipate to simply attain over two billion Korean gained (about $1.52 million) in revenue, simply with Rozy.”

He added that as Rozy grew extra standard, the corporate landed extra sponsorships from luxurious manufacturers comparable 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 comparable income this yr from Lucy, who has introduced in promoting provides from monetary and development corporations, in line with Lee Bo-hyun, the director of Lotte Residence Procuring’s media enterprise division.

The fashions are in excessive demand as a result of they assist manufacturers attain youthful customers, consultants say. Rozy’s purchasers embrace a life insurance coverage agency and a financial institution — corporations sometimes seen as old style. “However they are saying their picture has change into very younger 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 supply a business that includes actual people — the place weeks or months will be spent location scouting and getting ready logistics comparable to lighting, hair and make-up, styling, catering and post-production modifying.

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

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

Lotte Residence Procuring hires human hosts to promote merchandise on TV — however they “value quite a bit,” and “there will likely be modifications once they age,” Lee mentioned. So, they got here up with Lucy, who’s “ceaselessly 29 years outdated.”

“Lucy shouldn’t be restricted to time or area,” he added. “She will be able to seem wherever. And there are no ethical points.”

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 almost 6 million Instagram followers; and FNMeka, a rapper created by music firm Manufacturing unit 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 Client Science: digital influencers in different nations are likely to mirror a range of ethnic backgrounds and wonder beliefs.

Digital people elsewhere have a “uniqueness,” whereas “these in Korea are all the time made lovely and fairly … (reflecting) the values of every nation,” 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 — typically dubbed the “cosmetic surgery capital of the world” for its booming $10.7 billion trade — there are considerations that digital influencers may additional gasoline 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-about lovely within the nation stay slender; for ladies, this normally 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 excellent 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 beneath her crop tops.

Lee Eun-hee warned that digital influencers like Rozy and Lucy could possibly 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.

“Actual ladies need to change into like them, and males need to date folks of the identical look,” 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 Residence Procuring. Credit score: Courtesy Lotte Residence Procuring

The creators of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.

Lotte consultant Lee Bo-hyun mentioned they’d tried to make Lucy greater than only a “fairly picture” by crafting an elaborate again story and character. She studied industrial design, and works in automobile design. She posts about her job and pursuits, comparable to her love for animals and kimbap — rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. On this manner, “Lucy is striving to have a very good affect in society,” Lee mentioned, including: “She’s giving a message to the general public to ‘do what you need to do in line with your beliefs.'”

Baik, the Sidus Studio X CEO, mentioned Rozy is not what “anybody would name lovely” 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 reveals folks the significance of interior confidence,” he added. “There are different digital people which can be so fairly … however I made Rozy to point out that you may nonetheless be lovely (even with no conventionally engaging face).”

‘Digital blackface’

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

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

“Like all disruptive expertise, artificial media has the potential for each good and hurt. Problems with illustration, cultural appropriation and expressive liberty are already a rising concern,” the corporate mentioned in a weblog publish.

“To assist manufacturers navigate the moral quandaries of this rising medium and keep away from potential hazards, (Meta) is working with companions to develop an moral framework to information the usage of (digital influencers).”

However one factor seems clear: the trade 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 also be engaged on a digital human that can attraction to buyers of their 40s to 60s.

Sidus Studio X has huge 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 isn’t a huge distinction between digital people and the real-life celebrities they like,” he mentioned.

“We need to change perceptions of how folks consider digital people,” Baik added. “What we do is not to remove folks’s jobs, however to do issues that people cannot do, comparable to work 24 hours or make distinctive content material like strolling within the sky.