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The authentic virtual influencer: The emergence of virtual spokes-characters and virtual free agents

Apr 26 - 18h Alice AUDREZET

Virtual influencers (VI) are fictional entities operated by third parties (freelance creators, digital agencies, or brands). Despite their increasing popularity, the way people approach these often human-looking yet entirely fictitious creations, and whether they view them as ‘authentic’, remains unclear. Building on the Entity-Referent Correspondence Framework, this paper aims to explore different manifestations of authenticity in the context of VIs. We draw on interviews with consumers (64) and industry experts (11) to unveil different perspectives. We provide a typology of authentic VIs, introducing a differentiation between ‘virtual spokes characters’ and ‘virtual free agents’. Our findings demonstrate how the three types of authenticity, true-to-self (TTS), true-to-ideal (TTI) and true-to-fact (TTF), apply to virtual influencers. Furthermore, we show the different manifestations of TTI, TTF, and TTS in a VI context. We conclude with theoretical contributions, managerial recommendations, and offering areas for future research.