The new champion on her way to League of Legends, a songstress named Seraphine, is already a well-known virtual influencer. And, like many influencers, she’s been embroiled in some controversy earlier this week — for Riot’s marketing strategy with her seems focused on capitalizing on parasocial relationships. That’s nothing new in this day and age, but this week, her Twitter account utilized mental health issues to get engagement. Seraphine’s brand engagement strategy feels misguided at best and offensive at worst, especially when appropriating mental health struggles.
On Oct. 10, also known as World Mental Health Day, Seraphine tweeted:
“we’re going to shanghai in 2 days and it’s finally setting in, all at once. i’ve been working so hard, and i’ve been trying my best to love myself, but i still can’t find the confidence i need
i’m realizing that i can’t do this alone. and maybe i need to be the one to ask for help… so could you give me some encouraging words? i need something to believe in right now”
Normally, I would properly capitalize and include the necessary punctuation in this article, but how carefully these tweets are crafted — with their personable, casual, and intimate “stream of consciousness” writing style like the one every YouTuber who makes a Serious Apology Video uses in their video’s title — feels worth preserving.
The tweet was met with a mix of comforting replies from fans and people criticizing the marketing for being so dystopian. Here is a virtual influencer, whose identity has been and continues to be meticulously formed, tweeting like so many real people who turn to social media for support with their mental health struggles.
sucks to see brands use the same language real mentally ill people use when they’re struggling to cope, but here it’s used for clicks and to sell a product. parasocial relationships are easily formed with celebrities, but this is on a whole another level of exploiting that pic.twitter.com/WGoBk6SWaP
— ? Vida Starčević (@vidaisonline) October 15, 2020
The next day, Seraphine tweeted:
“i don’t think i’ll ever be fully ready. but i know there’s people believing in me, and that’s more than enough. ? thank you so much, i mean it sincerely. i’m gonna face this head on,” attaching a picture of a bulletin board with screenshots of some of the supportive replies she received.
Seeing this tweet — especially as I was coming home from a therapy appointment — made me feel physically sick. It’s weird and it’s gross. It’s not a young pop star being bravely vulnerable on social media about the pressure and anxiety she is facing as she experiences many changes. It’s marketing — specifically, marketing exploiting people’s sense of empathy to sell a product to potential clients. Marketing exploiting mental health issues during a global pandemic during which hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing economic ruin, being evicted from their homes, and losing loved ones to a deadly disease.
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That’s not to mention the genocidal angle to her character, which Gita Jackson at VICE explores in her piece on Seraphine and the account’s controversial tweets. She also gets to the heart of why this is ringing so poorly for many people.
“While a lot of young women suffer from mental health problems like depression, or have issues with their self-esteem when they try to express themselves through art, Seraphine’s tweets about her issues aren’t meant as an opportunity for other young women to be open and vulnerable about their issues,” Jackson writes. “It’s a naked attempt to get League of Legends fans to further invest in their parasocial relationship with Seraphine.”
As she clarifies, it’s not that fictional characters can’t address these issues by any means. I don’t even think what makes this so egregious is inherently part of being a virtual influencer. As dystopian as the concept is, it’s not one that has begun with Seraphine; it won’t be ending with her, either. But at the end of the day, there’s a whole entire team of real people controlling this virtual figure. A team being paid to come up with ways of creating the most engagement and revenue. A team that could have chosen to go about this in a nearly infinite number of ways with a fictional character, but that has chosen one of the most insidious ways I can conceive of.
I’d like to think we’d live in a better world if people extended their empathy to real people struggling with mental illnesses, which are very much not faked for branding and profit by the people who actually deal with them, as much as they extended it to Seraphine.
But maybe that’s the point. Extending empathy to Seraphine begins and ends with a supportive message. It requires no action, and no reckoning with inaction, because she’s not real. Your connection — your parasocial relationship — with her is not real, no matter how many times the real person running her account replies to you or how many relatable tweets in all-lowercase letters are published on her Twitter feed. Depression, anxiety, and mental illnesses have never been and will never be effective brand engagement strategies.