Adonis or Atrocious: Spokesavatars and Source Effects in Immersive Digital Environments

Adonis or Atrocious: Spokesavatars and Source Effects in Immersive Digital Environments

Natalie T. Wood (Auburn University, USA) and Michael R. Solomon (Saint Joseph’s University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-792-8.ch027

Abstract

A virtual world is an online representation of real world people, products, and brands in a computer-mediated environment (CME). Within the next few years CMEs are likely to emerge as the dominant internet interface. In addition to corporate websites, companies will operate virtual stores where customers can browse and interact with assistants. However, due to the newness of the medium advertisers still struggle to figure out the best way to talk to consumers in these environments–or to decide if they should enter them at all. In this chapter, the authors look at the role of avatars (digital spokes characters) as sources of in-world marketing communications. The authors discuss conceptual issues such as how an avatar’s appearance and the ability of the visitor to customize this appearance may influence consumer attitudes and behavior and how conversations with other avatars can serve as a potentially valuable starting point for buzz-building and word of-mouth marketing campaigns. They conclude with some specific suggestions based upon “lessons learned” regarding issues advertisers need to consider when choosing a spokesavatar to communicate with residents of virtual worlds.
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Welcome To The Metaverse

From Second Life to World of Warcraft, to MTV’s Virtual Pimp My Ride, millions of consumers live a parallel life in a digital reality. A virtual world is an online representation of real world people, products, and brands in a computer-mediated environment (CME). To many mainstream consumers and advertisers, this is largely an unknown or underground phenomenon–but it has real marketing consequences.

In mid-2007, Charles River Ventures proclaimed that the virtual goods market was worth approximately $1.5 billion and growing rapidly. With more than 150 of these immersive 3D environments now live or currently in development, the number of consumers who come into contact with virtual goods as they navigate these worlds is projected to rise rapidly (“150+ Youth-Oriented” 2008). Indeed, according to one estimate by 2012, 53 percent of kids and 80 percent of active internet users will be members of at least one virtual world (“Kids” 2007, “Virtual Great Enters” 2008).

Clearly virtual environments will be pivotal in fueling new consumer trends over the next decade. McKinsey predicts that “Virtual worlds such as Second Life will become an indispensible business tool and vital to the strategy of any company intent on reaching out to the video-game generation” (Richards 2008). Harvard Business Review predicts that within the next five years virtual environments are likely to emerge as the dominant internet interface. In addition to corporate websites, companies will operate virtual stores where customers can browse and interact with assistants (Sarvary 2008). To date numerous companies including IBM, GE and Toyota have created CME’s for internal and external applications. Eventually, these CME forums may rival traditional, marketer-sponsored e-commerce sites in terms of their influence on consumer decision making and product adoption.

However, due to the newness of the medium advertisers still struggle to figure out the best way to talk to consumers in these environments–or to decide if they should enter them at all. Ironically, this challenge is compounded by the unparalleled latitude both advertisers and consumers possess in these environments to assume virtually (pun intended) any physical form they wish. How will our understanding of source effects apply to advertising contexts where a company spokesperson whose avatar (or digital representation) is a fiery dragon, a sultry siren, or both at once? How does that company relate to a consumer whose avatar resembles George Bush, a furry creature, or a superhero? Welcome to the wild and wooly world of advertising in virtual worlds.

The influential cyberpunk novel Snow Crash by author Neal Stephenson envisioned a virtual world as a successor to the Internet called the Metaverse, where everyday people take on glamorous identities in a 3D immersive digital world. The book’s main character delivers pizza in RL (real life), but in the Metaverse he is a warrior prince and champion sword fighter (Stephenson 1992). The hugely popular Matrix movie trilogy paints a similar (though more sinister) picture of a world that blurs the lines between physical and digital reality.

Today these fictional depictions are coming to life as we witness the tremendous growth of real-time, interactive virtual worlds that allow people to assume virtual identities in cyberspace. {xe “virtual identities”}On these sites, people assume visual identities or avatars {xe “avatars”} ranging from realistic versions of themselves to tricked-out versions with “exaggerated” physical characteristics, or from winged dragons to superheroes. Researchers are just starting to investigate how these online selves will influence consumer behavior and how the identities we choose in CMEs relate to our RL (or “meat world”) identities.

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