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How Audiences Perceive Gender Presentations by Virtual Influencers

Social media influencers – individuals who create persona-focused personal brands to engage audiences – have become economic and social capital powerhouses.

Influencer marketing was estimated to be worth over $13 billion in 2022, with 75% of brands reporting that they now allocate funding for influencer marketing. With even government agencies commonly collaborating with influencers to reach their audiences, they’re clearly here to stay. But that doesn’t mean that the influencer space is immune to disruption by ever-advancing technology.

Enter the virtual influencer (VI): entirely computer-generated characters, who, despite not actually being alive, also engage with audiences using persona-focused personal brands.

But how effective are Vis?  Human influencers do what they do by making themselves everything that a commercial brand isn’t: they’re engaging, relatable, and most importantly, they’re authentic. However, VIs cannot be authentic because they have no offline lives, no real personality, and no emotions to speak of.

So how do they generate that sense of authenticity and connect with their audiences?

Researchers Yu-Hao Lee, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Media Production, Management, and Technology associate professor, and Chien Wen Yuan, National Taiwan University, examined VIs and the ways they present to their audiences. They studied two main aspects of potential authenticity for VIs – mentions of their virtual nature vs claims of biological characteristics (like emotions and physical senses), and the use of stereotypically gendered language and affect. Importantly, they further sought to link these presentations to audience reactions, seeing if people were responding positively or negatively, and whether those responses were also in-line with stereotypically gendered communication.

Results showed that VIs seemed to be leaning heavily into typical gender presentations to promote their authenticity, and that their audiences were following suit. Female VIs communicated in a more positive, emotional manner than males, and were more likely to reference their own virtual or robotic nature. While audience reactions were more positive than negative across the board, female VIs got significantly more positive comments than males, who received significantly more negative comments. Audiences were also much more likely to reference sex when responding to female VIs, even though female VIs did not use sexual language more than male VIs did.

Interestingly, disclosures about being virtual or attempting to pass as human didn’t generate more positivity, and only caused an increase in negativity for female VIs when they mentioned biological processes.

Ultimately, these results show that in a realm where they could be absolutely anything, VIs are being portrayed as stereotypical humans. Just as with real people, double standards with gendered communication on social media seemed to give even virtual females less flexibility in their personal expression. Unlike their male counterparts, female VIs faced more backlash when attempting to present as human or referencing sex (even though female VI references to sex garnered more audience reactions than male VIs) or when expressing negative emotion generally.

The fact that virtual/biological disclosure only mattered in specific circumstances suggests that authenticity for VIs is likely rooted in these gendered forms of communication. In the absence of anything else, market forces and audience demands drive even VIs into being stereotypically male or female. Marketers at least can take comfort in the fact that this makes audiences respond to VIs just like they were humans, for better or worse.

The original article, “I’m not a puppet, I’m a real boy! Gender presentations by virtual influencers and how they are received,” was published in Computers in Human Behavior on Dec. 23, 2023.

Authors: Yu-Hao Lee, Chien Wen Yuan

The summary was written by Vaughan James, Ph.D.

Posted: March 1, 2024
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