Audience   Social Media  

Who’s Responsible for Brand Success or Failure When the Endorser Isn’t Human?

As advancements in technology reshape the advertising world, the use of virtual influencers is on the rise. Virtual influencers are computer-generated image (CGI) characters on social media that post and interact with followers, just like humans. Some brands are using these virtual influencers as endorsers in place of human influencers. To make virtual influencers more “real” and “human”, virtual influencers involve behind-the-scenes human interventions, which include both virtual influencers’ creator companies and endorsed brands.

By crafting compelling storylines and narratives, these behind-the-scenes corporate efforts aim to build a robust influential persona that resonates with consumers and affects their purchasing behaviors. This creates a multilayered ad in which the virtual influencer, the company behind the influencer, and the brand could all be seen as responsible for the success or failure of an endorsement by the consumer. So, what does this mean for consumers and brand advertisers?

Researchers at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications explored this complex and unique development in advertising. Doctoral student Fanjue Liu and Associate Professor Yu-Hao Lee sought to examine how and to what extent the influencers, the influencers’ companies, and endorsed brands attribute responsibility when the influencer is not human.

The researchers conducted an online experiment that tested the type of influencer (human versus virtual), the endorsement outcome (success versus failure), and cause placement (influencer versus brand). The researchers first found that in the case of endorsement failure, consumers deemed the virtual influencer’s creators and endorsed brands responsible for both the influencer’s behavior and the resulting failure of the brand endorsement, attributing far less blame to the actual virtual influencer. In comparison with human influencers, virtual influencers were perceived as less trustworthy, less attractive, and less credible, regardless of endorsement success or failure.

Findings also indicate that consumers interact with and are oriented to multiple source layers when engaging in virtual influencers’ brand endorsements. For both endorsement failures and successes, consumers attributed significantly more responsibilities to virtual influencers if the endorsement was caused more by influencers than by brands. Similarly, more responsibilities were attributed to virtual influencers’ companies when virtual influencers rather than brands caused the endorsement. In contrast, consumers attributed more responsibility to endorsed brands if the endorsement was caused by brands than by virtual influencers.

This study demonstrates the complexity of how consumers perceive virtual influencers’ brand endorsements. Consumers’ perceptions of responsibility are multidirectional and may not be as straightforward as when humans endorse brands. The researchers caution brands when employing virtual endorsers because consumers may hold the brand responsible, especially in the case of failures or transgressions. The researchers conclude that further research in this expanding domain of advertising that addresses other variables such as brand commitment and influencer familiarity is warranted.

The original article, “Unveiling Behind-the-Scenes Human Interventions and Examining Source Orientation in Virtual Influencer Endorsements,” was published in the proceedings of the IMX ’22: ACM International Conference on Interactive Media Experiences in June 2022.

 Authors: Fanjue Liu, Yu-Hao Lee

 This summary was written by M. Devyn Mullis, Ph.D.

Posted: May 15, 2023
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