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Avoiding cancel culture: the language of celebrity apologies

In the era of cancel culture, celebrities find themselves needing a crisis comms back-up plan ready to roll out in case they rock the boat of public sentiment. A heartfelt public apology, or statement – that was once reserved for extra-marital affairs, criminal or violent acts, is now as essential for an ill-timed tweet, or unpopular voiced opinion.

Recently, former reality show contestant Molly-Mae Hague faced backlash after she made comments asserting that all people, regardless of background have equal opportunity to work hard and achieve their goals, as she maintained that “we all have the same 24-hours in a day”.

Many people, including her fans found this tone-deaf response to neglect generational poverty – especially coming from a young white woman who found success at a luxury villa in Mallorca. Her apology looked something like this:

“…I apologise to the people that have been affected negatively or misunderstood the meaning of what I said in the podcast, the intentions of the podcast were only ever to tell my story and inspire from my own experience. Love to you all, always x” 

These celebrity apologies are so common, we’ve noticed a pattern – certain words, phrases and written structure that ensure readers detect remorse and self-reproach. We used Relative Insight to find out exactly what those words are.

We started by pulling a selection of prominent apologies for all sorts of questionable acts from the past two decades from well-known people including Ollie Robinson, Chrissy Teigen, Chris Brown, Bill Clinton, and Ellie Kemper and uploaded this text file directly into Relative Insight. Next, we compared this apologetic language set against our database of standard english, which represents general word usage.

Comparing celebrity apologies against this data source will uncover which words, phrases, grammar, topic and emotion are used more by celebs compared to the typical english language speaker. Here’s what text analysis uncovered:

I was

Cancel culture apologies typically begin with a retrospective look at the author’s transgressions. Actions are described as irresponsible, selfish, stupid, bad and wrong. These adjectives are structured in the past tense, creating distance from what the person did then, to what they’re doing now. It’s important to admit wrongdoing, but excessive use can appear disingenuous.

Image: Insight card

I am

The next step in a standard cancel culture apology is the use of the present tense – how are you currently feeling about your actions? Our technology highlighted sadness and understanding as significant emotions used to describe the writer’s current state. The sadness should be attributed to the celeb’s mistake through words like ashamed, embarrassed and disappointed.

Image: Insight card

I will 

The final step in a well-crafted public apology is growth. Looking to the future, how can these people convince their audience that they will not repeat a similar mistake? Cancel culture apologies often insist on education and learning to foster growth. The desired outcome is typically general like the phrase be better. A specific outcome and plan of growth – through education or counseling – would better create a sense of sincerity and commitment. 

Image: Insight card

Linguistic Trends

Within these three steps, the statements we analyzed employed overly polite and formal language. The apologies were significantly more likely to use words like sorry and thank you, which is to be expected, but they also sought to emphasize the importance of the messaging through the use of boosters like very, truly and deeply. It’s not enough to say sorry, you should feel truly and deeply sorry.

Image: Insight card

If you make a mistake (and the public finds out) show remorse, understanding and a willingness to do better – that’s how to craft the perfect celebrity apology.

Relative Insight can work with any textual data source and any form of comparison. We can compare social media conversations among different audience demographics to uncover customer insights. We can compare reviews for your brand against your competitor to understand competitor benchmarking. We mean it – any data, any comparison.

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