PART ONE: Celebrity public relations teams can’t save Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis

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Illustration by Kayla Roberts.

Mila Kunis. Ashton Kutcher. Danny Masterson. These are all household names in Hollywood; many of them have stayed in the limelight for decades. But, in September, they landed in the center of a storm of scandals.

Actor Danny Masterson was convicted to 30 years to life on two accounts of rape; however, prior to the sentencing, actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, who were co-stars with Masterson on “That 70’s Show,” wrote letters to the judge urging for a lesser sentencing, which were obtained by the press. Kutcher shocked fans with this letter, especially being a co-founder of Thorn, a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing child trafficking in online spaces. Lynn Comella is the Department Chair of Interdisciplinary, Gender and Ethnic Studies at UNLV and specializes in gender and pop culture. Comella shares, “I was struck by two things: this dizzying contradiction in the work that Kutcher has done around trafficking and then, in a flash, he’s writing a letter in support of a person who’s been convicted of rape.” Kevin Stoker, the Department Chair for Communication Studies and Director of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV, says, “Celebrities are all brands; anytime you do something as that brand, it comes back to affect you. For Ashton Kutcher, [his letter] goes against his brand, and he’s created a crisis for himself by being inconsistent with his brand.”

Additionally, Comella points out the flawed logic Kunis and Kutcher use in their video, “When it comes to public figures, men in particular, who are accused of sexual assault and/or rape. Supporters will come to their defense and argue that they couldn’t have possibly done this because of ‘How good a father they are. Look at how good a husband they are’ and ‘How could he do these things? He’s a good man.’ The reality is good people do bad things all the time.” 

In response to the backlash, Kutcher and Kunis posted an apology video to Instagram. Celebrity scandals resulting in public apologies are far from being new. In 2006, Michael Richards, star of the famous sitcom, “Seinfeld,” went on a racist rant during a comedy set that was recorded via cellphone and released to the public. He appeared on the “Late Show” with David Letterman a few days later to offer an apology. 

The phenomenon of the “apology video” has become its own genre, full of performative cliches and subversions. And like films, where actors read lines from a script, the apology video has a public relations statement written by a consultant, and the viewer has to discern between what is honest or if it is just more acting. Stoker adds, “You can’t do [an inauthentic apology]. If I was a public relations advisor for these folks, I would say, ‘You have to own it, and you have to make your apology sound true.’”

Julianna Jovillar, a communications studies graduate student, shares thoughts on the passivity used in their video. Kunis and Kutcher share that Masterson’s family asked them to write the letters of support. Jovillar says, “Including the knowledge that Masterson’s family asked for character letters discredits them, even if they are not meaning to shift blame. It makes them look like they were not proactive about the letters.” In the apology video, Kunis and Kutcher say, “We are aware of the pain that has been caused by the character letters that we wrote on behalf of Danny Masterson.” They did not say, “The pain that we have caused,” rather, they said the phrase “the pain that has been caused.” Stoker hypothesizes that their passive tone is a result of a conflict between the public relations team and legal counsel. Stoker says, “So here’s a battle that happens in organizations and in advising people like Ashton Kutcher. They also don’t want to say something that could make them liable … so you have this balance. Here you have the attorneys saying, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that.’ Then you have the public relations person saying, ‘We need to address this head on.’ And sometimes the lawyers win and sometimes the [public relations] team wins.” 

Kutcher and Kunis have found themselves in a dilemma: show loyalty to their friend or show loyalty to their brand. Stoker says, “It’s all about a crisis of loyalties and who’s your loyalty to? Is it to your friend that has committed these crimes? Or is it to the victims, who you may not have known? But still you have an obligation to not re-victimize them … It’s a good morality lesson that we should recognize that if your friend does something really awful, then they basically violated their loyalty to them.”

Part Two will be released next week and will cover the celebrity public relations crises of Drew Barrymore, Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

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