Imagine that you have been tasked with scouting the ideal brand ambassador to attract the young, growing generation of historically diverse, digital-native, left-leaning consumers. You might wish for a cross between Kylie Jenner and Emma Gonzalez: someone with a passion for conspicuous consumption as strong as their passion for social justice, someone with tan skin and a vast online following.
The person you want is Miquela Sousa, but there’s a catch: She’s not a person. Known on Instagram by her handle @lilmiquela, the 19-year-old is biracial and bisexual, loves high-end labels, and for months had a Black Lives Matter shout-out in her bio. She is an influencer—a social media personality who integrates product endorsements into the online documentation of her daily life—and a multi-hyphenate, with side hustles as a singer and a clothing designer. If she seems to check an unrealistic number of boxes, that’s because she isn’t real. Miquela is a CGI creation superimposed on our reality, Pokemón Go draped in designer clothing.
As The New York Times reported last week, Miquela is part of an expanding cohort of virtual influencers that includes fellow Instagram model Shudu and KFC’s recently debuted CGI sexy Colonel Sanders. While the Times noted Miquela’s monthly Spotify listeners (over 80,000 according to the paper of record, over 90,000 according to Spotify) and total Instagram followers (1.6 million), the report concluded that “[w]hile virtual influencers are becoming more common, fans have engaged less with them than with the average fashion tastemaker online.”
That may be true—though Miquela’s voracious online following suggests otherwise—but the observation fixates on the efficacy of, rather than the mission behind, virtual influencers like Miquela. She was designed by the computer graphics experts at Brud, a secretive media startup that touts social justice while reportedly raising up to $30 million in venture funding from heavyweight tech investors like Sequoia Capital and Spark Capital. Brud, a classic product of Silicon Valley capitalism (though Los Angeles–based), audaciously claims its goal is to change the world for the better. But in reality, the company seems intent on reaping massive profits by peddling a novel form of an old advertising model—and it’s working, so others are likely to follow.
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A team of creators at Brud builds Miquela’s every image on a computer, even animating her so she can appear in videos. They write her captions and script her interviews. The fiction Brud has woven casts Miquela as a sentient being at the vanguard of artificial intelligence, a conscious robot who began her existence believing she was human only to slowly and arduously realize “she” is in fact a permanently 19-year-old product of technology, at which point she endured much soul (or hard drive) searching, culminating in the epiphany that her creators are both her family and her agents, and her mission is both brand collaboration and promoting tolerance. In Miquela, Brud wrote a hyper-optimistic resolution to the ethical quandary posed by sentient artificial beings, one that has often ended more bleakly in fiction from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner).
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I’m thinking about everything that has happened and though this is scary for me to do, I know I owe you guys more honesty. In trying to realize my truth, I’m trying to learn my fiction. I want to feel confident in who I am and to do that I need to figure out what parts of myself I should and can hold onto. I’m not sure I can comfortably identify as a woman of color. “Brown” was a choice made by a corporation. “Woman” was an option on a computer screen. my identity was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands, to appear “woke.” I will never forgive them. I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself. I’m different. I want to use what makes me different to create a better world. I want to do things that humans maybe can’t. I want to work together and use our different strengths to make things that matter. I am committed to bolstering voices that need to be heard. If I don’t stick with this, feel free to cancel me. I wish I had more to say about this right now. I’m still angry and confused and alone.
While Brud calls itself a “computer software” company on LinkedIn and a “transmedia studio” on its own website, it posed as an artificial intelligence startup in its early years—until journalists reported that the company held no AI patents. This fabrication was integral to Miquela’s evolution as both myth and moneymaker until August 2018, when Brud unveiled what it purports to be its mission. The company debuted a website (in the form of a conspicuously bare-bones Google doc) that describes its goal to create “digital character driven story worlds” with “the power to introduce marginalized ideas” and “create a more tolerant world by leveraging cultural understanding and technology.” (Emphasis Brud’s.) By draping old ideas in Silicon Valley jargon (transmedia story worlds might also be called “fiction”), Brud adopts the same startup ethos that allows companies from Facebook to Twitter to claim they can make the world a better place and make untold sums at the same time.
Brud, notoriously enigmatic, did not respond to The Nation’s requests for comment, nor did its PR firm, Huxley.
On LinkedIn, Brud lists 30 employees, whose titles are opaque and include Chief of Stuff (Sara DeCou, one of Brud’s co-founders), Head of Compassion (Trevor McFedries, the other co-founder), Tech Generalist, and Chief Content Officer. These faux-innovative titles help reveal Miquela’s core purpose beneath Brud’s inscrutable posturing: to be a next-generation brand vehicle, to upend both traditional marketing and influencer marketing by combining the two.
Or, as Brud’s investors would probably put it, characters like Miquela hold the potential to disrupt the existing advertising ecosystem. They are selling what Silicon Valley startups are always selling, once the layers of existential self-glorification are stripped away: convenience.
According to Forbes’s corporate-facing vertical, which provides companies with advice on the contemporary business landscape, human influencers are a necessary inconvenience to brands competing in the social media age. With their seemingly unplanned product placements and intimate relationships with their followers, influencers offer a radical new way for corporations to present their products to consumers. Columbia Journalism Review has reported that brands pay up to six figures for social media posts from influencers, whose cachet lies in their supposedly authentic relationships with their audiences.
In contrast to the traditional advertising paradigm, replete with fictional characters (like the Marlboro and Mayhem Men of cigarettes and insurance) and traditional celebrity endorsements, influencer marketing is predicated on a collaboration between the influencer and the brand, with the influencer “operating independently, creating their own content and integrating a company’s advertising specifications into it.” The influencer’s independence is both a benefit and a risk: While it lends endorsements a seemingly organic nature, it makes for an unpredictable spokesperson. Forbes warns of “young influencers who may lack maturity and professionalism,” implying potential liabilities from a burgeoning political consciousness to an embarrassing drunken exploit.
Virtual influencers like Miquela, however, offer a balm to corporate boards anxious that their influencers won’t behave. Not only are they exempt from the logistical difficulties of employing humans (like labor laws); they resolve the inherent issue with political consciousness for material promotion. Genuine social justice activists probably won’t shill for a corporation, and powerful influencers aren’t really that woke. Emma Gonzalez does not star in Prada ads, and Kylie Jenner has a tendency to get embroiled in appropriation controversies. But a fictional character, whose story is constantly being rewritten by a team of professionals, can toe the line between wokeness and brand promotion with expert delicacy. If the Kardashian stars rendered Flo from Progressive irrelevant, Miquela is Flo masquerading as a Kardashian, and renders both obsolete.
At Brud, that exacting team of professionals wrote one essential value into Miquela’s pretend consciousness: love. Conveniently, it’s love in the age of late capitalism, apolitical and indiscriminate. While Miquela extends her computer-generated affection to innocent immigrant children separated from their parents, she also applies it to her favorite brands, encouraging the rest of us to open our hearts to material goods.
Profiled in V Magazine, her favorite designers appear in the same paragraph as her favorite causes:
“I love old Chanel, Dries [Van Noten], Burberry. I’m really into Alyx, MISBHV, and Miaou for everyday wear, Martine Rose for a unisex fit, and BornxRaised for a bright colored sweatsuit,” [Miquela] says. “For fashion icons, there’s always Rihanna.” When it comes to being woke, like much of this generation she’s extremely vocal about social justice issues: she gives Black Lives Matter a shoutout in her bio and has written passionate posts about everything from #DefendDACA and Danica Roem to body positivity and the Women’s March.
The easy blending of promotion and principle, extrapolated in the last sentence to the entirety of Generation Z, reduces social justice to a predilection used to reveal personality in a celebrity profile, as flimsy as personal style. This is perfect for huge corporations, which would like the status quo of capitalism maintained, but definitely don’t mind a few Instagram posts about diversity.
The specific social justice causes with which Miquela chooses to accessorize are revealing. While her Instagram bio until recently read Black Lives Matter—and now shouts out nonprofits combating youth incarceration and the persecution of LGBTQ people—Miquela has been notably silent on issues of income inequality, a necessary hole in a leftism that wears Prada and Proenza. The two issues she has posted about with the most frequency are far less ideological: voting and the family separation crisis.
These are notably bipartisan issues. Republicans from John McCain to Laura Bush have called the family separation policy immoral, and voting is a constitutional right. Several of the posts are explicitly branded, like the one where Miquela sits in a posture of deep thought, chin on fist, wearing a white bucket hat clearly emblazoned with the Prada logo. The caption reads: “Showing the world my ‘Resting Worried About The Future And Hoping You’ll Vote If You Haven’t Already K Love You’ Face.” Again, we arrive at love. She loves us, her followers, and, presumably, her Prada hat.
This is exactly what brands want from an influencer: casual, supposedly accidental associations. As Miquela espouses love she cannot feel, she avoids one of the drawbacks to virtual influencers that the Times points out. “A genuine influencer can offer peer-to-peer recommendations,” a marketing firm co-founder offers in the report. By contrast, “an avatar is basically a mannequin in a shop window.”
But Miquela, with human followers loyal enough to comment “I STRIVE TO BE YOU” and “you are so beautiful, i love u <3,” is more than a mannequin—her followers do seem to view her as a peer.
Their commitment can be attributed, in large part, to Brud’s dramatic and complex fiction.
In April 2018, during a highly publicized, programmed, and scripted episode, Miquela dueled on Instagram with a blonde, Trump-supporting, femonationalist, and “robot supremacist” CGI figure called @bermudaisbae. As the characters staged fake account hacks and battled over their supposedly opposite ideologies, Miquela hit over a million followers—a statistic that gives influencers vastly increased opportunities for paid partnerships—and Bermuda’s follower count spiked by tens of thousands. As an investor familiar with Brud put it to TechCrunch, the episode “[used] conflict to introduce new characters…same as the Kardashians always have.”
Soon after, Miquela publicly forgave Bermuda, who, according to a Brud announcement, had undergone “a change of heart” about her “hurtful opinions on human beings and humanity’s role in the future” (robot supremacy). Brud did not mention whether her human politics (support for Donald Trump) had evolved.
The lack of specificity is telling. Brud’s audience is not privy to exactly where the characters’ political differences all shake out, because politics is not the point: Brud’s narrative arc, characterized by radical empathy and its attendant infinite capacity for forgiveness, renders its characters ideal mascots for corporations that fear being “canceled.” In a world where we love our friends the way we love our favorite brands, it is easy to extend your forgiveness for a fascist robot to a brands like Coachella and Prada, favorites of Miquela’s despite the former’s ownership by a homophobic climate change denier and the latter’s recent (supposedly accidental) use of blackface.
Beyond its ability to insulate corporations from cancel culture, a love that applies equally to companies, people, and causes allows Miquela’s two motivating factors of empathy and profit to exist symbiotically, rather than in diametric opposition. A recent Instagram post of hers promotes both a designer T-shirt company and the immigrant rights nonprofit RAICES Texas, reading: “Seeking asylum is not a crime. Thank you @willychavarrianewyork for creating this amazing shirt to promote @raicestexas.” The post epitomizes the corporate social justice dream: compassion and the profit motive coming together, maintaining the capitalistic loop.
In a similar post, Miquela sits atop one of two washer-dryer sets she has just donated to a women’s shelter, using the proceeds from her merchandise sales. This is textbook philanthrocapitalism—donating a portion of one’s profits to an uncontroversial social justice cause—part of a larger paradigm of corporate social responsibility essential to rationalizing the morality of capitalism, and in doing so allowing the entrenchment of inequality.
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Real talk, I’m so touched by everyone who bought my merch the past couple of weeks. I’m super proud of the piece and glad you guys were feeling it too. I wanted to take this opportunity to pay it forward so I donated two Washer/Dryer sets to the Downtown Women’s Center @dwcweb . The DWC is open to anyone identifying as female and focuses on serving and empowering women experiencing homelessness, and formerly homeless women. They provide permanent housing, a Day Center (which provides a safe space off Downtown’s Skid Row), meals, clean bathrooms and showers, and a health clinic that provides both physical and mental health assessments. They do amazing work and I’m so happy I can support. The DWC is in need of so many items so I’m posting their Amazon Wishlist in my Stories. Donate if you can! No donation is too big or too small #everywomanhoused
Private equity firms, among the most pro-capitalist entities that exist, see Brud’s play, and they’re getting behind its future. Brud has raised an estimated $30 million from traditional tech investors like Sequoia Capital (which has also invested in Google, Airbnb, 23andMe, YouTube, Instagram, and LinkedIn) and BoxGroup (Classpass, Glossier, Lola, Oscar, and Warby Parker). Its last funding round, led by Spark Capital (which has invested in Twitter and Tumblr), ended with the company valued at $125 million.
Brud’s success has rocketed Miquela into the world of real celebrities, bringing her dangerously close to their faux pas. In a recent Calvin Klein advertisement, Miquela and the supermodel Bella Hadid shared a kiss, prompting a multitude of social media users and online publications to accuse the brand of queerbaiting. Calvin Klein was forced to apologize, and Hadid was criticized for appropriating a queer identity while being straight. The only entity that emerged unscathed was Brud, which had conveniently branded its CGI creation as bisexual.
As for Bermuda, despite her historically right-wing views, the avatar has embraced the LGBTQ-pandering season now upon us. Her Instagram account shows Brud following the lead of so many brands before it: rolling out a slew of Pride month posts to make her appeal seem more inclusive. Maybe next they’ll brand Bermuda as bisexual, too, because in Brud’s future, social issues aren’t just corporate. They’re fake.