5 Rules of an Effective Mea Culpa: Why PewDiePie’s Apology Didn’t Work
Swedish YouTube star Felix Kjellberg better known worldwide as PewDiePie is in hot water after using the N-word during a video game livestream on Sunday. Known for his high-energy gaming videos, that are often laced with profane commentary and controversial jokes, PewDiePie is currently the most popular personality on YouTube and has more than 57 million subscribers.
With such an immense following, it didn’t take long for backlash to build up in response to the uttered racial slur. Hours after PieDiePie’s livestream, Sean Vanaman, co-founder of video game company Campo Santo, announced his intention to take down all of his company’s games from the vlogger’s livestreams:
On Wednesday morning, Kjellberg posted an apology video in which he said that he used the n-word “in the heat of the moment,” and that there was no excuse for his actions:
“You probably won’t believe me when I say this, but whenever I go online, and I hear other players use the same kind of language that I did, I always find it extremely immature and stupid and I hate how I now personally fed into that part of gaming as well,” said Kjellberg.
He added: “I’m disappointed in myself. It seems like I’ve learned nothing from all these past controversies. … I’m just an idiot, but that doesn’t make what I said or how I said it OK. It was not OK.”
Technically, Kjellberg’s mea culpa was done well: it sounded sincere and seemed to follow the traditional rules of an effective apology, which include:
- An acknowledgment of the violation of social norms or expectations
- A sincere expression of regret for the transgression
- An expression of empathy to those who may have been affected
- A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement
- A request for forgiveness
Yet, despite checking all the boxes, it seems to have landed on deaf ears with numerous top media outlets and commentators around the world who reported on the incident.
“PewDiePie, as the most popular YouTuber in the world, fosters the culture by spewing racist filth in a live stream,” said Polygon’s Senior Editor Owen Good.
So, why wasn’t Kjellberg’s apology effective after all?
Unfortunately for PewDiePie, this was not the first time he had to clarify his racially charged statements. Earlier this year YouTube Red and Disney’s Maker Studios cut ties with Kjellberg after he posted a series of videos featuring anti-Semitic content.
Just weeks before the latest incident, Kjellberg had to issue another explanation in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, promising that he would no longer make Nazi jokes on his channel.
“If for some reason Nazis think it’s great that I’m making these jokes, I don’t want to give them that benefit,” said Kjellberg.
Despite their effectiveness as a crisis PR tactic, all apologies follow the law of diminishing returns. A well-executed mea culpa can be extremely effective when it comes from a person or an organization for the first time. However, each consecutive apology afterwards will feel less and less sincere.
And if you apologize too frequently, your words may become nothing more than background noise.