Why the World Health Organization Turned to a Virtual Influencer to Share COVID-19 Tips

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Key insights:

The World Health Organization has enlisted a fake human to help with a very real challenge: how to get accurate, vetted information about COVID-19 in front of millennials and Gen Z.

Knox Frost, a virtual influencer with more than 1 million Instagram followers, is now helping solicit donations and tout social distancing, hand washing and other best practices to fight the coronavirus crisis. 

Posts from the computer-generated character—a 20-year-old Atlanta resident who loves basketball and video games—started this weekend. “Hey — listen up. I’ve partnered with @WHO to combat corona,” he says, introducing the relationship. “Let’s show them younger generations are in this fight.”

The WHO has been in overdrive on its social media for the past few months, tripling its social team’s headcount and disseminating a steady stream of tips and facts about the coronavirus while rooting out myths and hoaxes. The group has partnered with Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tencent and TikTok to put out candid, unbiased messages about the illness.

Its move to tap into a virtual influencer may be a first for a philanthropy, according to Ryan Detert, CEO of Los Angeles-based Influential, who spearheaded the pro-bono campaign for WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

“It made sense to use Knox Frost for this campaign because he is a great voice for the Gen Z and millennial audience,” Detert said. “We also realized that a virtual influencer participating in a social good campaign could generate a lot of excitement and attention.”

Knox is one of a growing army of fictional content stars like Lil Miquela, Blawko, Bermuda and Shudu who are “quickly emerging as an innovative new part of the influencer landscape,” Detert said. “They’re cutting edge, and the notable ones get great engagement on their posts. You also can’t deny that they’re a big draw in the mainstream media.”

Not everyone is sold on the blossoming trend, which has featured virtual influencer product pitches for Starbucks, Glossier, Spotify and numerous legacy fashion brands.

Internet Matters, a watchdog group, has criticized virtual influencers, saying they could confuse young people, especially children. The group argues that the creators behind these CGI characters aren’t always transparent about their motives, and the ultra-curated accounts are even less realistic than human-powered social posts.

Detert doesn’t see it that way, noting that even fast food giant KFC has debuted a virtual Colonel Sanders.

“CGI influencers are beneficial because they are the most controlled way to disseminate information to a Gen Z/millennial audience,” he said. “And I also believe that it’s fairly obvious that these are CGI and not trying to fool anyone. Top CGI influencer Lil Miquela’s bio on IG even describes herself as ‘change-seeking robot with the drip.’”

And even though Knox Frost isn’t real, his social posts lean into authentic issues like anxiety, loneliness and mental health. The character’s creators intend to combat fake news and speak directly to tough-to-reach demos through their work with WHO.

“As we’ve all seen in the media, Gen Z and millennials need to take [the seriousness of coronavirus] to heart,” Detert said.

Frost, in his relentlessly upbeat tone, has put out several coronavirus-related posts recently, including, “Anyone in quarantine who needs a DM?” and “New plan for the next few months: work with what you have at home. I’m talking FaceTiming your friends daily, keeping track of your thoughts on paper, drinking more water than usual, checking the news only once a day, doing something creative, or picking up a new hobby.”

Detert noted that his talent roster includes other virtual influencers, and that he plans “to use them more in the future.”

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