I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.
It took a quarantine, but the future of identity and influencer marketing is here. Along with it, another form of marketing is laid to rest.
The NBA Bubble in Orlando, Florida, gave us a use case for deepfakes that proved it useful for more than celebrity porn. Hulu deepfaked an ad featuring Damian Lillard passing time during the Quarantine. In it, he and Skylar Diggins-Smith acquired new hobbies such as baking sourdough bread and painting portraiture. The likeness of the athletes was used to face-swap body stand-ins, abiding by the rules of the NBA bubble while ushering in a new era of advertising that didn't require physical presence.
Consumer brands using disembodied spokespeople has a storied history, from a 1991 Pepsi ad featuring digital composites of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney interacting with Elton John, to the infamous ad featuring Fred Astaire posthumously dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. Digital recreations such as these have historically required teams of compositors and effects artists to painstakingly animate each frame, by hand, resulting in a convincing simulation. Or, not so convincingly, as was the case of Princess Leia Organa's cameo at the end of 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
This has obvious challenges to scale, but in the era of deepfakes, that barrier is removed. AI solves the scale challenge.
Since the eighth episode of the Future Commerce podcast, we've explored a number of topics that have implications for the future as it pertains to Body Data — the collection of data around our attention and gaze, the quantification of our physical attributions like healthcare information such as fingerprints, and, more recently, detailed facial characteristics. And, in the past two years, the long conversation about the ethics of gathering and using this data for marketing purposes.
The deepfake era of brand marketing may soon kill off another form of celebrity brand marketing: the dead celebrity spokesman.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
The Dead Q Score may be the most "Late Stage Capitalism" thing I've heard of this week.
The "Q" Score has nothing to do with conspiracy theories (thanks 2020 for ruining a perfectly good letter). It is a statistical measure of the ongoing marketability and value of a given celebrity. It poses two questions: how familiar a given person is with a celeb, and how likable are they?
Hard to believe that at one point in time, Bill Cosby had the highest Q Score in the world. Welp.
Dead Q Score, then, is the measure of the marketability of, well, dead celebs — "delebs," if you will. A 2013 New York Times piece on Marilyn Monroe's likeness used in a campaign for a haircare brand Sexy Hair, and showed that likability plays a major factor in the Dead Q Score of a deleb. The higher the Q Score, the more desirable it is to own or acquire the rights to use a deleb in a marketing campaign. Monroe's estate was acquired by the Authentic Brands Group in 2010. Celebrity estates present heirs, holding cos, and private equity firms opportunities to create enduring brands.
Dead Q Scores by Celebrity (NY Times 2013)
To say that Cosby has lost public likability is an understatement. A deleb, however, is effectively frozen in time and can be repurposed at will for use in modern marketing campaigns. Given the viability of AI to provide convincing deepfakes with consumer-grade hardware, one might wonder if we'll see a rise in deleb marketing.
Seraphine is the most popular new influencer you probably haven't heard of yet. Across all social platforms, Soundcloud, and Spotify she has over 1 million followers.
Seraphine, though, is a fiction. (OK, I was wrong. This is the most late capitalist thing.)
She is the creation of Riot Games - the parent company of the popular online video game League of Legends (LoL). The character, or champion, in LoL parlance, goes further than any other prior champ in the LoL universe by crafting a living persona that is taking place in realtime online right now. Seraphine lives in the same universe we do, interacting with her online fans, and living out her dreams to become a Kpop star. Rather than crafting a backstory, Riot has decided that her story should be in-motion, interactive, and evolving. Her newest single, Made Me This Way, debuted on October 16th and is nearing 750k streams.
It doesn't take very many brain cells to see why a virtual celebrity could be advantageous. Virtual celebs - "velebs?" - don't harm stocks, they don't go on benders, and they don't get Me-Too'ed. Or so you'd think. Riot has recently come under criticism for using October 10th, World Mental Health Day, to depict Seraphine as battling with anxiety and low self-confidence.
Or, as Gita Jackson for VICE puts it, the LoL champ's posts are little more than marketing:
Seraphine’s tweets about her issues aren’t meant as an opportunity for other young women to be open and vulnerable about their issues. It’s a naked attempt to get League of Legends fans to further invest in their parasocial relationship with Seraphine.
Turns out marketing is fraught no matter if the subject is real, dead, or a virtual creation of a corporation. A corporation that raked in $1.5B in 2019, and one of the most popular gaming communities in the world that boasted 100 million monthly active users in 2016. Riot has the manpower and capital to deploy a convincing online persona such as Seraphine across dozens of social and media platforms to create an intricate story; something that requires a horde of artists, writers, and creatives to pull off.
Virtual influencers are no more scalable than digital composites of delebs were in the 1990s and the willingness of the public to accept the use of a deleb is still questionable. The announcement of a forthcoming film starring James Dean was quickly axed. Dean died in 1955. Dean was (air quotes here) cast "after an exhaustive search:"
We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.
The public wasn't buying it.
Legal and Emotional Harm
A commonality exists between Velebs and deepfaked Delebs: neither are bound by time or space. The concept of place is of diminishing importance in the post-COVID world. Offices are remote, ghost kitchens offer up virtual restaurant brands. Being in a place at a time is no longer a constraint.
With this newfound freedom and cloud-scale of influencer marketing come new ethical dilemmas and legal precedents. Laws in at least 14 States have protected celebrity likeness from falling into the public domain. California's "Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act" in 1999 now allows any celebrity, living or dead, to sue under California law if the commercial use of their persona took place there. Indiana, Nevada, and Pennsylvania similarly have expanded their statutes to cover commercial use of any celebrity personae within their borders.
The duration of posthumous rights is still debated, effectively creating a window in which celebrity heirs, licensees, and estate managers like Authentic Brands Group have to realize their investment, resulting in a depreciating asset. Depreciating assets with an expiration date tend to suffer from market forces causing the owners to exercise rights depicting the celebrity in a manner that the deceased themselves may not agree with.
Some celebs have taken pre-mortem measures to prevent this from happening, as was the case with Robin Williams, who restricted the use of his image for 25 years after his death. Restrictions are often granular, too, restricting the license of a deleb's image to alcohol and tobacco brands, for instance.
The unauthorized use of image can have real impacts as heirs often argue that they also suffer a personal emotional injury caused by an embarrassing commercial use of the persona of a beloved family member. For example, the heirs of John Wayne objected to the use of his image in a greeting card targeted toward homosexuals. They were upset about the tarnishing of John Wayne's masculine image more than any reduction to his image's commercial value. This was just one example used in California to argue in favor of more rights for the heirs of deceased celebrities.
Velebs have no heirs that would suffer no such emotional injury. At least not yet.
Velebs will be notable in the coming years, especially as more social interaction takes place in the domain of the virtual. Licensing of velebs like Seraphine will become commonplace, driving Q Scores of IRL celebrities down. In a not-too-distant dystopic future, velebs will never die because they never lived. They aren't subject to the bounds of celebrity death rights and estate ownership, and their licenses never revert to public domain (thanks, Disney).
The ultimate benefit will fall to the corporations who create these velebs who never breathe a first breath, and cannot breathe a last.