VTubers: How ‘fake’ celebrities are changing the digital advertising landscape

By: Kayla Stein

(Image credit: https://www.nonstop.hololive.tv/)
Members of Hololive, a popular VTuber agency.

What if I told you some of the internet’s biggest influencers don’t really exist? VTubers, or virtual YouTubers, are digital avatars that livestream, game, and entertain viewers across a variety of content. The catch? They’re not ‘real.’

VTubers generate billions of views and millions of dollars in revenue and have become not only pop culture phenomenons, but also innovative marketing tools across a variety of industries. From food to fashion to social media itself, prominent VTubers can be seen in advertisements for Taco Bell, Nissin Ramen, and other industry giants. Other virtual icons, like Samsung Sam and CodeMiko, have proven the technology’s potential in domestic marketing, too.

While VTubing is rooted in Japanese online culture, its rapidly growing popularity in the west is something to keep an eye out for. It is significantly more common for Japanese brands to use anime characters or cartoons in their advertisements, but the emergence of US-based VTuber ads is more than enough evidence to suggest that western brands are paying attention. 

You should, too.

What is a VTuber?

The term ‘VTuber’, or virtual YouTuber, refers to content creators that use digital avatars in place of their actual body or face. These avatars are designed and piloted by technicians utilizing motion capture technology to map their movements and expressions to a 3D model, allowing them to become a precisely designed online persona.

(Image credit: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoSrY_IQQVpmIRZ9Xf-y93g)
Gawr Gura, Hololive EN’s beloved shark-cat girl, streams Minecraft.

Although they might look it, VTubers aren’t all that different from regular content creators. Just like normal human creators, they vary wildly in content type, audience size, and platform presence, but also in personality, appearance, and demeanor. The adoption of these virtual ‘shells’ allows the human pilot to invent their own persona and become someone completely different. This empty canvas provides a cutting-edge opportunity for brands to engage their audiences in unique and exact ways, as they can be customized completely.

Although concepts similar to VTubing had existed in the years prior, Kizuna AI is considered to be the first official VTuber after coining the term herself during her debut in 2016. Known for her quirky comedy, singing, and dance videos, she set the stage for VTuber agencies to gain massive international traction in recent years.

Why is it so popular?

(Image credit) Kizuna Ai demonstrating the motion capture technology and its precision.

In order to understand why VTubing got so popular, both abroad and domestically, it is important to examine its origins and current cultural influence.

Just like any other talent, popular VTubers can and often are affiliated with agencies. While the overwhelming majority of VTubers are not, it’s important to understand the industry agencies, as they’re the biggest names involved in influencer marketing and are credited with today’s popularity of VTubing in the western world. VTuber agencies provide the content creators with additional technical support, brand-level promotion, and convenient collaborations with their other signed creators. 

While there are dozens of VTuber agencies and groups with diverse rosters of talent, Hololive, in particular, is widely regarded as the reason that VTubing broke into the western world. With a combined 53 million subscribers and over 4.7 billion views between their regional branches, it’s safe to say that Hololive has people’s attention. 

(Image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c4_22LjGQo)
The thumbnail of holoEN’s debut video on YouTube, including (from left to right) Ninomae Ina’nis, Takanashi Kiara, Watson Amelia, Mori Calliope, and Gawr Gura.

Their US branch, holoEN, features a full roster of English-speaking VTubers, all of which debuted under Hololive as the COVID-19 lockdowns became more widespread in the summer and fall of 2020. This convenient timing helped to rapidly accelerate their traction in the US, as people had more than enough time to dive into more niche creators on the internet. 

Hololive is a great example of how agencies split their talent into international branches. This regional division makes it much easier for viewers to find VTuber content in their language and time zone. It also makes it much easier for advertisers to implement these more targeted and regionally palatable talents into their campaigns. 

What does this mean for brands?

VTubers offer brands and advertisers a wildly different medium to create content. In influencer marketing, these popular content creators can engage niche international audiences. In creating a VTuber themselves, everything from their appearance to their voice to their personality is a completely blank slate for the brand to build their campaigns around.

Kizuna AI was one of the first VTubers to be used in mainstream media advertising. In 2018, SoftBank, a Japanese mega-conglomerate valued at over 342 billion dollars, used her as part of an influencer marketing campaign to promote the new iPhone on her YouTube channel.

Some brands are even setting world records in their campaigns, like Nissin Foods during their Yakisoba UFO noodle promotion. 

(Image credit: https://grapee.jp/en/117618)
On June 24, 2019, VTuber Kaguya Luna live streams from 19 miles above sea level, breaking the previous Guiness World Record during a promotion for Yakisoba UFO.

Even local governments are getting involved. In Japan, each prefecture has a mascot used for domestic travel marketing. It didn’t take long for Ibaraki Prefecture to create Ibara Hiyori, their official VTuber icon. 

VTuber influencer marketing isn’t restricted to just Japan, however. The audience is international, and so are the brands. 

Gawr Gura, a member of Hololive EN, had a cameo in one of Taco Bell’s ads promoting their food during the 2021 Summer Olympics. 

Hell, even Netflix has their own VTuber, a sheep girl that hosts videos on the Netflix Anime channel.

(Image credit: https://www.pdvg.it/en/2021/04/29/ecco-a-voi-n-ko-la-vtuber-targata-netflix/)
N-Ko Mei Kurono, Netflix’s branded VTuber, introduces herself for the first time during her debut in April of 2021.

Franchises western audiences might be more familiar with, such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Boss Baby, are also using this tech to promote their IP by creating virtual models of their iconic characters. 

Perhaps the perfect example of the trend gaining popularity in the west is Barbie herself. The iconic American toy now vlogs on her YouTube channel with nearly 11 million subscribers. 

These agencies have already identified international audiences, both for regular viewership and for advertising opportunities. It’s time we take advantage of it, too.

So… how does it work? What is motion capture technology?

Just like the VTubers themselves, the complexity of motion capture technology, or mo-cap, is wildly variable. With a relatively diverse range of prices, technical requirements, and time commitments, there are options for anyone to take a crack at it. 

Firstly, VTubers need an avatar. As the technical challenges to VTubing often involve highly specialized labor, it is difficult for most people to undertake designing and creating the model themselves. Most times, VTubers will either tweak a pre-made model found online, or commission an artist to create a 3D avatar of their choosing. Everything can be customized, with some VTubers even spending additional money for artists to create new custom clothing for their avatar. Once your avatar is ready to go, it’s time to get started on mo-cap.

(Image credit: https://medium.com/@hyprsense/how-to-become-a-virtual-youtuber-influencer-7074b852fb9)
A screenshot of a technician mapping a VTuber avatar to motion capture hardware.

Motion capture technology for VTubing is a combination of two major parts: hardware and software. A lot of VTubers simply use a basic webcam and pre-made VTuber software to map facial expressions and minute head movements. However, this can scale all the way to full-body suits that track all movement, with smaller haptic sensors like motion capture gloves offering a happy medium. 

While there are always variables, the most common configurations include the following:

Webcam + VTuber Software

(Image credit: https://www.vseeface.icu/)
A group of VTubers demonstrating facial mapping technology using a webcam and model software.

This is the most common VTuber set-up, as it is the least expensive, least time consuming, and least technically demanding configuration. Free software exists to automatically map your face to ready-to-use or custom imported models. However, by nature, this is the most restrictive setup in terms of what motion is actually captured, as it can essentially only map facial expressions.

Motion capture gloves + Webcam + VTuber Software

(Image credit: https://www.fxguide.com/fxfeatured/the-gloves-are-off-well-on-actually-rokoko-test-drive/)
Motion capture gloves mapped to a digital 3D plane

This configuration allows the user to increase their range of motion capture. While it is still less expensive and less time-consuming to learn to use than a full-body suit, it requires special software to combine the motion capture between the gloves and the webcam. This allows VTubers to make use of their hands and arms during broadcasts. 

Full-body suit + VTuber Software

(Image credit: https://www.xsens.com/)
A VTuber demonstrating the Xsens full-body motion capture suit using an iPhoneX to track facial expressions.

This configuration is by far the least common, as it’s the most expensive and time-consuming out of the three. It requires intense and specialized labor, as well as enough space to record the motion capture itself. However, VTubers of this caliber have full use of their body, and can even dance or jump around. Some suits include facial cameras, but other VTubers combine the suit with an additional camera to add the expression tracking. This is by far the most immersive option, and the closest we are to ‘virtual reality’ becoming a real thing.

The Bottom Line

As technology incessantly integrates further into our daily lives, it’s fair to assume that VTubers will only continue to grow in popularity. The internet is vital to the livelihoods of billions of people across the globe, and we rely on our digital presence for work, school, entertainment, and more in a seemingly endless loop of ‘being online’. 

Influencer marketing strategies that utilize these VTubers have an incredible opportunity to take advantage of our society continuously moving into virtual spaces. They have the power to engage niche audiences, introduce new marketing mediums, and embrace internet culture in all of its glory. It is critical that marketers, advertisers, and communication professionals understand the potential that they could unlock for any brand campaign on an international scale.

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