It’s surely been a fraught weekend for Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’ PR team. On Friday, it emerged that the Hollywood couple had submitted letters of support for their friend and former That 70s Show co-star Danny Masterson, before he was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for the rapes of two women two decades ago. In those letters, the couple praised Masterson’s “exceptional character” and “tremendous positive influence”; Kutcher described him as a “role model”, while his wife hailed Masterson as “an amazing friend, confidant, and, above all, an outstanding older brother figure to me”.
Their comments inevitably landed with a thud. A few days later, Kutcher and Kunis donned their most remorseful plain T-shirts and assembled in front of a wooden wall to film an apology video. That deliberately boring setting was no doubt painstakingly workshopped by the aforementioned PR team, because nothing screams insincere like saying sorry in front of, say, a private tennis court or infinity pool. Unfortunately, it’s also the same backdrop that the couple used when they filmed a spoof of the notorious “Imagine” video (which was originally shared by Wonder Woman actor Gal Gadot during lockdown, featuring a bunch of her famous pals earnestly singing along to the John Lennon song) to feature in the TV show The Boys – they’ve gone from parodying embarrassing celebrity misfires to engaging in one.
The couple spoke alternate lines in their carefully worded statement, as if taking part in a relay race of remorse, sometimes taking a quick break from staring pensively down the camera lens to stare pensively at one another. “We are aware of the pain that has been caused by the character letters that we wrote on behalf of Danny Masterson,” Kutcher said, before Kunis stressed that these messages “were not written to question the legitimacy of the judicial system or the validity of the jury’s ruling”. Instead, her husband continued, “they were intended for the judge to read and not to undermine the testimony of the victims or re-traumatise them in any way”. He and Kunis, he added, “would never want to do that, and we’re sorry if that has taken place”.
For famous people, sorry really does seem to be the hardest word, and Kutcher and Kunis’s video is just the latest proof. Rather than getting the public back on side, the teeth-grindingly awkward clip only seems to have made things worse. The comments on Kutcher’s Instagram post have been disabled, as if in anticipation of a backlash, but over on Twitter/X, the message has been described as “hurtful” and “fake” by social media users, and branded a form of “damage control”.
Their misfire of a video is just the latest in a long stream of celebrity mea culpas. Who can forget the stilted apology released by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in 2016, after the latter admitted to illegally bringing her two dogs into Australia? Sitting awkwardly in front of some beige curtains, the then-couple extolled the merits of this “wonderful island” and its “treasure trove of unique plants, animals and people” in monotone, each of them with all the verve and enthusiasm of someone attempting to film a video identification message on their phone so that they can verify their bank account.
More recently, we’ve had Will Smith post a rambling video, almost six minutes in duration, after slapping Chris Rock during the 94th Academy Awards ceremony. This was his second apology, having shared an Instagram statement in the immediate aftermath of the incident that described the slap as “unacceptable and inexcusable”.
Written in white text on a black background, Smith’s Instagram message was a near-relation of the ubiquitous Notes App apology, which has become the go-to technique for celebs saying sorry in the social media era. Although the expression of regret has doubtless been sent back and forth between a celeb’s various publicity and legal teams in countless emails, a screenshot from the iPhone Notes App gives the impression (or at least it did, before everyone started doing it) that the star themselves is typing from the heart. One big fan of the form is Justin Timberlake, who shared Notes App missives in 2019, apologising to his wife for a “strong lapse in judgement” after he was pictured holding hands with a co-star on a night out, and then again in 2021, responding to backlash following the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears.
We live in the “age of the apology”, says PR expert Sophie Attwood, the founder of SA Communications and author of Beautiful PR: Finding Your Brand’s Heartbeat for Authenticity in Communication. “A couple of decades ago we rarely saw celebrity apologies in the public sphere,” she explains, but in recent years “apologies have become commonplace and very much expected, or even demanded, from the public”. Social media has made celebrities’ lives even more public, and has simultaneously given their fans a chance to call them out for any perceived wrongdoing; we now expect famous people to address and own up to their missteps, rather than adopting the “never complain, never explain” approach and hoping things will blow over. The results can be surreal or seem overblown. In a discussion about theatre etiquette on This Morning earlier this year, presenter Alison Hammond joked that she would be “devastated” to see “no singing” signs during performances; musical theatre fans took issue with her comments and she later released a statement apologising “to anyone who I offended especially the incredibly talented theatre performers, who I have the utmost respect for”.
But the fact that a different famous person seems to engage in hand-wringing every week has arguably made it more difficult to cut through the noise. Back in 2015, researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, explored the effect of “normative dilution” on public apologies, concluding that the “inflationary use” or increased frequency of apologies risked “devaluing [them] and undermining their effectiveness”. And think of just how many contrite Notes App statements we’ve sifted through since then.
We’ve reached a point where we can almost play apology bingo when we read or watch these messages, thanks to the stock phrases on heavy rotation. “I’m listening and learning” and “I can do better” are perennial favourites – they sound worthy and earnest without actually guaranteeing anything – but they have been overused to the point where they provoke eye rolls rather than approving nods from the public.
Another trope to avoid? The apology that looks like an apology, but on closer inspection is less of an “I’m sorry” and more of an “I’m sorry you feel that way”. Messages like this are often more an act of self-defence than a genuine attempt at atonement. The tell-tale sign is a phrase like “if anyone was offended”, which has the effect of placing the fault elsewhere, rather than taking responsibility.
Placing the all-important “sorry” right at the end of your statement is a common pitfall, too, and one that Kutcher and Kunis have made: when you watch their message, Hughes argues, it feels like “its purpose was more to clarify their version of events… which instantly makes you question the sincerity of the video”.
“We live in an age when people are savvy about when something is genuine, and when it is simply spin,” Attwood says. For that reason, she adds, “a blanket apology won’t wash” – instead, “it has to be heartfelt and specific”. Rob Hughes, the co-founder of marketing and management agency Blueprintx, agrees. “Celebrities are often criticised for being detached from reality so in the face of impending backlash, an apology has to be wholeheartedly genuine and sincere in its delivery,” he says. No platitudes, then, and no tiptoeing around the reason why you’ve opened up Notes App or filmed a lo-fi video in the first place – just apologise early and often. Repentant celebs, take note.