How YouTubers Turned the Apology Video Into a Genre

When it comes to YouTube stars, apologies are products—just like lipsticks—and everyone is thirsty for your click.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
a screenshot of beauty vlogger jaclyn hill in her apology video "my lipsticks," to the left of a screenshot of james charles in the video "tati"
Screenshots via YouTube

The controversial beauty entrepreneur James Charles sighed so many times over the course of his now-deleted apology video "tati"—directed to his former friend Tati Westbrook after she accused him of shady brand deals and sexual practices—that an edit titled "James Charles' apology but every time he sighs it zooms in on his face" includes no fewer than six zooms in just 45 seconds. In the YouTube ecosystem, where controversy follows vloggers the same way teenagers on Instagram do, the dramatic sigh of the apology video doesn't just indicate that a plea for forgiveness will follow, but it breathes life into a new cycle of click-driven content.


The apology video is immediately obvious from the way it's titled. It's either wordy (the hour-long "everything i had wish i said a long time ago" from Raw Alignment, a health YouTuber who caught flack after transitioning from vocal veganism to a meat-inclusive diet) or as brief as possible (Logan Paul's "So Sorry.," which clocks in at 1:44, or gaming star PewDiePie's "My Response" after he said the n-word on a livestream, which squeaks through at 1:36). Often, it's punctuated inexplicably ("RACISM." from beauty vlogger Jeffree Star after a history of anti-Black comments were revealed). They're always vague enough that you have to click to figure out what's really going on, like "Addressing All the Hate We've Received" from Cole and Sav, who made an April Fools' video telling their child they were giving her beloved dog away.

Watch enough of them, and every YouTube apology video starts to feel the same. The sigh isn't always literal; sometimes it's spiritual, less a slump in tone and more a slump of the soul, if you will. People known for ineffable dickery like vlogger Logan Paul, who notably and insensitively included a dead body in a video in Japan's Aokigahara Forest, might choose a seemingly sincere teary-eyed thumbnail. For beauty "gurus"—especially those better recognized when heaped more heavily in makeup, like James Charles—makeup is minimal to the point of seeming nonexistence. After her racist tweets came to light, beauty vlogger Laura Lee spent at least two minutes wiping tears off her cheeks, although none seemed to actually drop from her eyes.


Put all of it together, and it's as if brevity, a change in case, a lack of makeup, or a long, swelling sigh can all somehow make atonement seem more authentic—but these days, the illusion doesn't seem to be fooling people too much. This past October, the YouTuber Jacksfilms made a video called, "I'm an Apology Video for Halloween," in which he pointed out just how formulaic these videos can be.

Barely a month after James Charles and Tati Westbrook lived the phrase "I'm a messy bitch who lives for drama," the beauty world has again given YouTube its latest controversy. The expectations were high for Jaclyn Hill's long-awaited makeup line; the response, so far, has been crushing. Jaclyn Cosmetics officially launched on May 30, but just about two weeks later, Hill apologized for the line in a 14-minute-long video titled "My Lipsticks," which has grabbed over 5.4 million views in the past week.

Literally a shining star of YouTube's beauty sphere, Hill has upwards of 5.9 million subscribers, 6.2 million Instagram followers, and cheeks known for a blinding sparkle of highlighter, like a Cullen enhanced with Juvederm. When it came to makeup with Hill's kiss of approval, fans expected more—yet when they unboxed their lipsticks, they found the wax mangled and scratched, and many of the tubes covered with white hairs or full of inexplicable lumps. People who tried them on claimed that they got rashes, swelling, and blisters as a result.


So when Hill uploaded "My Lipsticks," the over 22 thousand people who signed a petition for the line's recall might have expected just that. Hill blamed the factory instead—the irony of Hill's shades having names like "Control Freak" and "Perfectionist" has no doubt spurred some shade of its own. Hill's apology doesn't appear to be convincing viewers; the video has a pretty even split of upvotes to downvotes as of this writing. Part of it, it seems, is that Hill leaned too obviously into the tropes of the YouTube apology: "Hoodie. Unstyled hair. no makeup. The YouTuber's apology starter pack," reads the top comment.

In the earlier days, when YouTubers weren't quite the "influencer" juggernaut they are now, apologies done by video might have seemed more believable and relatable. Now, the big stars are massive: Logan Paul has 19 million subscribers, but that's still just a fraction of PewDiePie's 96 million. Leveraging that fame, Logan Paul sells hoodies, Jaclyn Hill sells lipsticks, Tati Westbrook sells beauty supplements, and so on.

On YouTube, apologies—like lipsticks—have become just another product. With high-profile stars always selling something, the apology video is a necessary step of damage control. And if the scandal blows up enough, the apology video can be a way of reeling in new viewers, too—plenty of people, I'm sure, hadn't heard of Tati Westbrook or James Charles until explainers of their situation ended up everywhere, including the New York Times.


But the life cycle of a YouTube scandal doesn't end at the YouTuber's apology video. After the apology video come the videos analyzing the apology, and then the response videos, and then the videos rounding up the best and the worst apologies (e.g., "youtubers apologies but its only the bs parts") and all the memes (e.g., "Apology Videos as Zodiac Signs"). The apology video and everything related to it flows in the endless succession of auto-play; you could spend hours watching just apology video-related content.

Scandals spur not just memes and roundups, but also new video formats that smaller creators glom onto like vultures. For YouTubers who aren't yet that popular, a big scandal can cause a surge of attention. PopLuxe put the lipsticks under a microscope for "Jaclyn Hill Lipsticks UNDER A MICROSCOPE + DESTROYED + BLACK LIGHT," while Kaur Beauty analyzed them from a medical perspective in "STUDENT DOCTOR: JACLYN HILL LIPSTICKS AND PUBLIC HEALTH." The thirst for clicks is palpable through the screen.

And the numbers make sense. One take on Hill's lipsticks came from RawBeautyKristi, who has about 667,000 subscribers and videos that typically net around 200,000 views each. "THE TRUTH ABOUT JACLYN HILL COSMETICS…", however, quickly became her most popular, picking up over 3.6 million views in less than two weeks.

The apology video and its many spin-offs are intentional, purposeful, and increasingly unavoidable—maybe that's why they feel so scripted and hard to believe. In the bigger context of a scandal, it all feels a little like a season of a bad reality show: a narrative arc where conflict builds into redemption until everyone, somehow, is friends again, with viewers meant to keep following problematic stars because, well, they apologized. We have the major villains and the minor, and everyone is vying for a few seconds of screen time.

According to SocialBlade, a website for keeping track of YouTube stats, Hill has picked up at least a few thousand subscribers since posting "My Lipstick," because everyone, of course, makes it back to the top, and the cycle starts over again.

UPDATE 6/19/19: A month after posting (and deleting) his apology video, James Charles is back on YouTube.