Virtual influencers are popular in Japan and China. Through brand partnerships and online gigs, these digital personas are generating colossal revenue. Unfortunately, the human behind the virtual influencer doesn’t always benefit. Subjected to hellish speeds, these shadow actors ruin their health for the benefit of production companies.
In the mid-2010s, the phenomenon of Virtual Youtubers, or Vtubers, originated in Japan. Concretely, some videographers have chosen to make themselves known without ever appearing in their true guise. To interact with their community or achieve online exploits, they rely on modeling softwarea webcam and motion sensors.
Thanks to this technology, they appear as a virtual avatar. Quite often, they design their own animated character inspired by Japanese art. Some Vtubers channels, like that of Yume Kotobukigenerate more than one million euros per year.
Interviewed by AFP, Mayu Iizuka, the young woman behind the character of Yume Kotobuki, explains that many of her fans send her money to support her. Subscribers are also willing to pay to have one of their comments featured in a live video.
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The phenomenon of virtual influencers
The phenomenon quickly spread outside the Japanese peninsula, particularly in China. Under the impetus of marketing agencies, brands have massively invested in the popularization of these virtual icons. For them, it is easier to control a virtual influencer than a flesh-and-blood personality. This novel approach makes it possible to reduce the risk of scandal.
“This allows brands to better control their marketing cadence, the physical appearance of the virtual figure and their integration into marketing initiatives”explains Pablo Mauron, managing director of Digital Luxury Group in Shanghai, to journalists from Rest of World.
For the time being, the fashion for virtual YouTubers remains the prerogative of the countries of the Asian continent. Vtubers are especially popular in Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is far from being unknown in the West. According to a study by the Influencer Marketing Agency, 58% of Americans aged 18 or over already follow a virtual influencer on social networks.
Among the greatest successes of this new industry are A Soul, a pop music group made up of four virtual girls. The group was created by Yuehua Entertainment, a Beijing-based record company, with help from ByteDance, the Chinese giant that owns the TikTok social network. Since its launch in December 2020, A-Soul has multiplied concerts and live events. The group has also appeared in several advertising campaigns, for KFC or L’Oreal for example. Thanks to A-Soul, Yuehua Entertainment has generated millions of dollars in less than two years.
Extreme working conditions
According to a survey carried out by Rest of the Worldan international non-profit organization that covers the issue of technology outside the West, the actors behind the avatars are not compensated up to the profits generated.
Last May, the actress who lends her voice and her movements to Carol, one of the characters of the group A-Soul, complained about her working conditions on her personal blog. Unknown to the general public, she thought that her testimony would go unnoticed, but Internet users managed to get their hands on her blog. She mentions in particular the infernal pace imposed on the actors and acts of harassment. Shortly after this post, Yuehua Entertainment announced that Carol will be taking a ” indefinite break » due to his problems with ” health “.
Quoting an anonymous source at ByteDance, Chinese media claim to have discovered the terms of the contract of the A-Soul actresses. According to the leak, the comedians would only perceive 0.5% of revenue generated by their fans in addition to their salary. Yuehua Entertainment strongly denied the rumors, claiming that the actresses get 10% of the earnings.
According to the Rest of World investigation, this is not an isolated occurrence. The actors behind virtual influencers would ruin their health to bring their character to life. On her personal social networks, the young woman behind Carol explains in particular that she suffers from hearing loss and vocal cord damage.
As the survey points out, the actors are very often dependent on production companies behind the project. Mengyu Peng, manager at SuperACG, a company that offers virtual avatars, reveals that an actor is not free to decide how many hours he wants to perform. The actor depends on the imperatives of his virtual double.
“Wearing motion capture suits is exhausting, and jumping around every day is tiring. It feels like a lot of hard work for very little reward”testifies a Vtuber, questioned by the Chinese media Biede.
The return of the human
Disappointed by the revelations around the A-Soul group, many Internet users began to follow the actress who plays Carol on her personal social networks. The young woman interacts with more than 10,000 people every day. Following the scandal, A-Soul fans visibly more attached to the actress than to her avatar. Flesh influencers seem far from has-been.
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