Content warning: this piece aims to critique upsetting content from YouTube videos, including suicide, death, sexual assault, racism, sexism, and animal abuse. Some of the videos and descriptions are graphic.
A Severe and Continuous Lapse in Judgement
“Hey umm… I really hate to say this… I think there’s someone hanging right there…”
Logan Paul froze in place. His fixated eyes gaped as wide as the eyes on his fluorescent green hat.
“This isn’t a fucking joke guys, that’s a fucking person!” said Logan, the distressed tone in his voice marinated in fear and curiosity.
Logan pointed his camera towards the figure that seemed to float among the sea of trees in Aokigahara — more commonly known as the “Suicide Forest.” As they suspected, it’s a corpse hanging from a noose.
Everyone is disturbed, including Logan — who continues filming as he attempts to cope with what he just saw.
“I’m sorry Logang, this was supposed to be a fun vlog.”
Yup. That’s the Logan Paul — one of the most popular vloggers on YouTube.
This was a scene from a now-deleted episode of his daily vlog that made international headlines on the first day of 2018 for all the wrong reasons.
In public relations terms, this is a crisis — something that normally happens to big corporations. Now, it’s happening to YouTubers.
Sorry for what? An introduction to YouTube apology videos
I wanted to be a YouTuber growing up. How embarrassing right?
That’s where you’d be wrong. Making YouTube videos for a living has become a completely viable career path over the past decade. A survey by The Harris Poll found that kids in the United States would rather grow up to make vlogs on YouTube than become an astronaut.
“YouTube, in particular, has very much become part of the mainstream,” says Dr. Matthew Flisfeder, an associate professor at The University of Winnipeg. “We often hear a lot about people building their own brands on YouTube.”
Successful YouTubers become brand names — and a good brand image is vital to that success. It would make sense for a YouTuber to apply proper issues management techniques when they notice more people subscribing to the angry mob forming outside of their mansion instead of their channel.
A YouTuber’s go-to method of damage control has become the “YouTube apology video.” Here’s what many of them look like:
Ok, they’re not all that bad, but there’s way more bad apology videos than good apology videos.
I contacted two PR consultants to help me evaluate four different YouTube apology videos: former political communications consultant Nick Sears and President of Dooley PR & Marketing Adam Dooley. Sears has helped clients mitigate various sex scandals and financial scandals, while Dooley and his firm have done a ton of crisis communication and media training for clients over the years.
“[YouTube apology videos are] the same sort of thing as a corporate apology,” says Dooley. “I don’t think it’s much different than a regular corporate apology, it’s just a different kind of corporation.”
Crisis management techniques such as controlling the narrative, responding in 24 hours, and keeping it short and direct have saved the bacon of many corporations. However, they’re usually orchestrated by PR consultants, the most reasonable human beings on the planet in my opinion.
But Logan Paul isn’t a PR consultant — he’s a YouTuber.
Case #1: Logan Paul
Logan Paul became known for his loud and hyperactive skits on the six-second video sharing platform, Vine. Like many other “Vine famous” celebrities, he became a YouTuber after Vine was shut down in 2016; unlike many other “Vine famous” celebrities, he was able to stay relevant. It turned out the boisterous tone that made him big on Vine was even better for YouTube.
On the other hand, his tone made his videos hard for anyone over the age of 12 to enjoy. In his videos, Logan is brazenly breaking social norms like a caffeinated, unattended eight-year-old in the toy section of Walmart. His videos got views — but they portrayed him as a hyperactive frat-boy at best, and downright disrespectful at worst.
So, what’s was his apology video like?
This is a far cry from Logan’s usual, chaotic self. His tone, his body language, his voice — he looks as if he’s been crying for the past 24 hours. It’s a very sincere apology according to both Sears and Dooley, and an effective one too, considering it was uploaded the next day.
“I think it’s obvious in the video that he has been slapped in the head by the internet,” says Dooley. “He knows he screwed up.”
Logan is clear and direct. He immediately states he was in the wrong, doesn’t shy away from what he did, talks about what he should have done differently, and apologizes to those he wronged, including the family of the victim. Oh yeah, all in the first minute.
“I love the fact that he told his followers who are defending him to stop defending him and what he did was indefensible,” said Dooley. “I think what’s missing from [his apology] is what he learned […] but he certainly offered an unequivocal apology.”
“The best way he could have [handled the situation] better was to have not done it at all, but that’s kind of the thing with apologies,” says Sears. “You make a mistake and you learn from it.”
Logan did a lot of things right, yet his apology still received 2.3 million dislikes (though it’s unclear if people disliked his apology, or him as a person). He still got 56 million views, so the message got across.
“We’re in a really difficult period of time where earning forgiveness is really difficult,” says Dooley.
Logan Paul’s YouTube channel was left untouched for the next four months, except for a short documentary about suicide prevention. Was it a bit grandiose? I mean, yeah… but that’s what YouTube celebrities do.
Eventually, the outrage blew over and Logan Paul was back to being Logan Paul.
“It’s not ‘three strikes, you’re out’ anymore — It’s one strike and you’re done,” says Sears. “He’s definitely been lucky to be able to recover well and I think his response to that catastrophic screw up was the reason why.”
Now if only he would apologize for Airplane Mode.
Case #2: Laura Lee
I’m pretty unfamiliar with the “BeauTube” community, mainly because I don’t need make-up to look fine as hell. The only cosmetics I’ve ever worn is eye-black to make all 90 lbs of me look intimidating during high school football.
I had no idea why I kept running into so many “BeauTubers” while I was searching for apologies to roast. I had to investigate, so I fired up Google and dove into the “deep web” (aka, page two of the search results).
The reason? Drama.
“There’s certain subgenres that are known for their melodrama,” says Dooley. “Your fame is, in part, due to the over the top reaction you have to everyday incidents.”
Laura Lee’s apology video is no exception.
The BeauTube community is like Game of Thrones: there’s backstabbing, betrayals, too many characters to keep track of, and everyone on Twitter won’t shut up about it.
In the BeauTube community’s version of “The Red Wedding,” Jeffree Star — the Cersei Lannister of BeauTubers — was subtly called out in an Instagram post featuring Laura Lee and three other BeauTubers. Jeffree’s “stans” decided to do some digging around the social media history of all four of the BeauTubers, and found some pretty problematic and racist posts.
Laura’s Twitter feed was no exception.
“Tip for all black people if you pull ur pants up you can run from the police faster… #yourwelcome,” read one of Laura Lee’s deleted Tweets back in 2012.
Laura lost around half-a-million subscribers over the next week after her racist Tweets were uncovered. A response was inevitable, and here’s what she delivered.
This apology video is like a finely-aged brandy — it’s rich, it’s flavorful, and kind of makes me want to vomit.
“In some ways, I kind of feel sorry for her,” says Dooley. “I think she’s genuinely trying to apologize… even though it comes across as very fake.”
Laura’s apology feels more like a skit on Saturday Night Live than crisis control. The way she ascends into a blubbering-mess midsentence is just… *Chef hand-kiss*.
“The second you cry — not that it’s an unnatural response to a stressful situation, which I imagine this was — it really kills your credibility,” says Sears. “It really comes across to people as if you’re flipping this around and becoming the victim.
Dooley says that public figures coming under fire for pre-fame social media posts has become a common crisis in the past few years, and there’s a good chance that they’ll be happening more frequently as time goes on.
“Twitter’s been around for, what? 10-12 years? #MeToo wasn’t around ten years ago,” says Dooley. “Tweets from people that are misogynist or maybe make fun of sexual harassment, they’re read completely different than they were ten years ago.”
Dooley mentioned James Gunn, who was able to recover after his old social media posts got him fired by Disney, as a good counterpoint to Laura Lee’s apology.
“I think people have learned that they need to sanitize their social media,” says Dooley.
But wait — there’s more! Laura released another apology a month later.
If I was writing this article in 2011, I’d make an Inception joke. I won’t though, because I’m better than that.
“I took the time and thought about my positioning, who I am, why started this journey, and I came to realize I literally have millions of people watching me. I am a role model, and I have to stand for more, and I have to do a better job.”– Laura Lee, “Lets Chat: 9-25-18”
It’s an improvement. The one second that Laura gets choked up felt more genuine than the four minutes of crocodile tears in her previous video. I thought it was a strong follow-up, but that’s the best it can be — a follow-up.
“The conversations that surrounded her second video had nothing to do with the incident, it was just talking about the fact that she had to make a second video,” says Sears. “I don’t know how much of the message got across, all I could picture was her face in the first one.”
Case #3: Sam Pepper
“You have the wrong guys! We’re just kids from Kansas!” Sam Golbach cried, begging the masked gunman to put away the gun pointed at his best friend Colby’s head. “Please! He’s everything I have!”
Bang. Colby went limp.
Sam shrieked, tears streaking down his now-reddish face as he jostled around in the chair he was tied to. He couldn’t comprehend what he just saw — all he could do was scream, hoping someone on the streets below could hear him.
Suddenly, Colby got back up, approaching his distressed best friend. “Sam! I’m okay!”
“WHAT THE FUCK?! WHAT IS THIS?!”
It was a prank.
The gunman in the video was none other than YouTube prankster Sam Pepper. He would become the most hated man on YouTube after uploading this prank in late 2015, and his response to the outrage didn’t help.
YouTube prank videos are what you’d get if a sociopath made a hidden camera prank show. Clever YouTube prank videos exist, but most of them are just people being rude in public and calling it a prank or a “social experiment.”
The biggest problem with these prank videos is that YouTube is set up in a way that makes pushing the ethical limits a must to get views and stay relevant.
“Influencers might go to different extremes or far-reaching lengths to try to maintain or reaffirm their reputation,” says Dr. Flisfeder.
Sam Pepper’s first prank that got him into trouble back in 2014 was the “Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank” (which contains disturbing content — watch at your own risk). Sam would ask an attractive stranger for directions as one of his sleeves were tucked into his baggy hoodie. He then used the hand that was supposedly tucked away to squeeze the stranger’s butt cheeks, pretending someone else did it.
Sam played the outrage off, claiming it was a “social experiment.”
Sam was back at it again a year later when he uploaded the “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK” (which again, contains disturbing content — watch at your own risk) I described earlier.
The good news? This prank video got Sam back into the spotlight. The bad news? The light from the said spotlight was coming from the torches of an angry mob.
Did Sam apologize for the outrage? Nope! He made a GoFundMe page though, promising to delete his channel if he received $1.5 million. You could even kick him square in the testicles for $7,500 according to the donation page.
People didn’t have to raise money to see his channel deleted. Sam deleted all his videos himself two months later.
A week later, this was uploaded (and eventually deleted, then re-uploaded by someone else).
I ran an experiment to see if I could make a sandwich before Sam addressed either of the pranks that got him in trouble. I succeeded — and the sandwich wasn’t half bad either.
“It’s like, you have pride — and everyone has pride… No one wants to admit they’re wrong. No one wants to, like, ask for someone’s forgiveness or ask for a second chance or anything like that. It’s just normal human process.”– Sam Pepper, “im sorry”
“A 20-minute video is not the right way to go,” says Dooley. “A good apology is short, it’s direct, it’s genuine, it’s contrite — it doesn’t ask for anything in return.”
Sam claims he’s “speaking from the heart” to try to be genuine. The quality of his apology video says otherwise.
The video looks like it was filmed with a 10-year-old flip phone, and the harsh cut that occurs after the camera dies indicates that Sam just threw the videos on a timeline and called it a day.
“The problem was that he went into [the apology] already having his mind made up in terms of his decision and how he was planning on presenting himself,” says Sears. “While he might not have had a script to work off of, it was very clear that he knew what he was going to say”
Sam doesn’t say anything along the lines of “I apologize.” Instead, he begs for a second chance the same way I’d beg my mom to give me back my Nintendo DS after she caught me playing Pokémon past my bedtime. Sure, I was in the wrong — but I needed to evolve my Sneasel into a Weavile if I was ever going to beat Cynthia’s Garchomp (much like how Sam said he needed to evolve his “pranks” in order to stay relevant).
“Honestly, from the depths of my heart, I want to do this as my job, but I want to do it right. I don’t want to make crap that makes people mad, or upsetting, or… I want to make everyone smile, I want to make everyone happy.”– Sam Pepper, “im sorry”
Sam explains that he began staging his pranks (including the two that got him in trouble) in order for them to be as outrageous as possible and because every other prank YouTuber was doing it. He also explains that he’s not as big of a “douchebag” (his words, not mine) as he appears in his videos.
“Just because what you do is fake or what you do is scripted doesn’t make it right,” says Sears. “If it’s portrayed as real, it will be received as real.”
Was Sam Pepper a martyr for the YouTube prank community? A victim of YouTube’s algorithm? I guess, but it’s not an excuse for acting like an idiot in public.
“The instant you say, ‘I’m sorry, but…’ that’s it,” says Sears. “There has to be some comprehension of that person’s actions on their part that they acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and that did not come across in this case at all.”
Case #4: Brooke Houts
I didn’t know much about Brooke Houts, but she was beginning to find her niche on a platform crowded with young, attractive, L.A. based vloggers. The reason? Her pet Doberman named Sphinx. Unfortunately, Brooke let the dogs out after she accidentally uploaded an unfinished video onto her channel (contains disturbing content — watch at your own risk). In the video, Brooke is seen hitting, shoving, and even spitting on Sphinx.
“We love you, or whatever…” Brooke said, in what would’ve been the videos sign-off before Sphinx scampers towards her and tries to lick her. Brooke immediately shoots a glare at her Doberman — her venomous expression a jarring contrast from her usual bubbly tone of voice.
It made people look at her in an entirely different light. Every jump cut became very concerning, especially whenever her dog comically jumped onto her.
“First of all, I don’t know why you would hit an animal…” said Sears. “A dog at that.”
Brooke was quick to apologize on Twitter, explaining that she was disciplining her dog and she “had a tough week.” She received no charges for animal abuse after the LAPD investigated and found no evidence of abuse or neglect. All was forgiven and everyone moved on…
Just kidding, people were still furious. Even Logan Paul expressed his disgust on Twitter.
“Apologies should be made in the same medium in which the error was made in most cases,” says Dooley. “Or in the most convenient medium that you’re already using as a corporate channel.”
This is one of the rules of thumb that Dooley uses for his clients if they’re issuing an apology. For Brooke, that channel would be YouTube.
Two months later, Brooke broke her social media silence and posted this.
Hey uhhh… Brooke? Why does this apology video have advertisements (if you’re watching without an ad-blocker)?
“That’s a huge red flag for her,” Sears said as soon as I showed him the video. “When your click is automatically — in theory — sending her money, there’s something very disingenuous about that.”
Let me know what advertisement you got in the comment section. I got the SkipTheDishes ad where Jon Hamm thinks he’s a millennial.
“I don’t think this video will be monetized, but on the off chance that it does, all proceeds will be happily donated to an animal welfare organization in Southern California.”– Brooke Houts, “A Message For You”
“If they’re monetizing it for the purpose of [ad-revenue] going to a good cause, generally speaking, I’m okay with that,” says Sears. “I also think that the onus is on the person who said they’re doing it to offer some sort of supporting evidence that they have followed through.”
As of writing this, I couldn’t find any evidence from Brooke to support her statement other than what she claims in the apology video.
Brooke may have talked about what she’s done to better herself since, but she doesn’t explicitly mention she hit her dog in the video.
“Isn’t it funny how [YouTubers] never want to talk about the topic?” Dooley asked when I showed him Brooke’s apology. “There’s no reason that you should be pussyfooting around when everyone knows what it’s about.”
A study published in the Public Relations Review looked at the responses of 32 different apology videos and found that 62 per cent of commenters in these videos had opinions on the reputation of whoever was apologizing. They also found that the positive and negative comments would correlate with how sincere the commenters perceived the overall apology.
Insincere is a good way to sum up Brooke’s apology — or the “un-apology” as Dooley put it.
“I also want to apologize to anyone who was offended. It has never been and will never be my intention to hurt or offend anyone, ever.”– Brooke Houts, “A Message For You”
“This is a typical kind of non-apology where you apologize if anyone’s offended, but you don’t apologize for your conduct,” says Dooley. “She’s kind of got herself beating around the bush and sort of half admitted that she was doing the wrong thing.”
Dooley told me about how he’s turned down clients simply because they weren’t willing to give a genuine apology to the victim(s). Seeing how fired up Dooley got as he decimated Brooke’s rhetoric brought me joy — Codec the Corgo, Dooley PR & Marketing’s office Corgi, is in good hands.
Brooke has posted a few videos since the apology — including a video about where she’s been since the incident she uploaded just this month — to try and move on from the incident. The internet never forgets, unfortunately, as each video continues to be bombarded with dislikes and spiteful comments.
But we love you, or whatever…
Final Verdict: What Does This All Mean?
YouTube apology videos aren’t too different from YouTubers themselves: they both fall into that weird grey area of human and corporation. Is the YouTuber apologizing because they’re feeling remorseful or because their subscribers are plummeting?
“In neoliberal capitalism […] the idea is to create a society based largely around the market which incentivizes most of us to think of ourselves as individual entrepreneurs,” says Dr. Flisfeder. “Social media has helped to facilitate that by giving us a platform to self-advertise, to self-market, and to self-brand.”
It sure has, and you can follow me on Twitter @LucasHrynyk for proof.
YouTube is still growing and changing, so who knows what sort of content we’ll be seeing in the next 10 years. Will PR consultants have more YouTubers as clients? I don’t know, I can’t read the future.
What I do know, however, is that there are plenty of horrible YouTubers — which probably means more horrible YouTube apology videos.