Ashton Kutcher has resigned from Thorn, the anti-child-sex-abuse organization he co-founded with then-wife Demi Moore, amid backlash over his support of convicted rapist Danny Masterson. Last week Masterson was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote letters of support for their former co-star. They've faced intense backlash since the letters were made public, stunning fans and advocates for sexual assault victims.
Time reports Kutcher resigned as chairman of the board, while Kunis, who served as an observer on the organization's board, will also step down.
"After my wife and I spent several days of listening, personal reflection, learning, and conversations with survivors and the employees and leadership at Thorn, I have determined the responsible thing for me to do is resign as Chairman of the Board, effectively immediately," Kutcher wrote, in part, in a Thursday letter obtained by the outlet. "I cannot allow my error in judgment to distract from our efforts and the children we serve."
Celebrities or role models disappointing supporters is nothing new, but for many, this one hit differently.
"Ashton and Mila are a great couple, both megastars who have done well. As industry staples, the public has had the opportunity to watch them grow up, allowing younger fans to grow alongside them," crisis PR expert Ronn Torossian, founder and chairman of 5W Public Relations, explains to Yahoo Entertainment. "It's easy for audiences to feel they've built a relationship with the couple, making this a brutal moment of clarity for fans, and a reminder that they don't actually know these two individuals despite feeling otherwise."
How did this go so wrong?
In their separate letters, Kutcher and Kunis called Masterson a "role model" and great father. They praised him for discouraging drug use during their time on That '70s Show, and the internet had a field day with that one. ("Don't do drugs, but rape is fine??")
"There was no outcome in which Ashton and Mila would receive praise for providing character letters on behalf of Danny Masterson; this was doomed from the very start," Torossian says. "Hollywood is a very small place and people have long-standing relationships. When you are a megastar like Ashton and Mila, anything you can do can become public. Ashton and Mila aligning themselves with Masterson after he received a guilty verdict could only end in backlash for the couple, even if the letters never became public."
Kunis and Kutcher's 'robotic and insincere' apology video 'wasn't great'
Days after the letters were published, the actors said they "support victims" in an apology video they posted on Instagram. The married stars did themselves no favors with that video.
Juda Engelmayer, president of public relations and crisis communications firm HeraldPR, tells Yahoo the video "was poorly scripted, if at all, and seemed to be a rationalization of what they did, not an apology for doing it."
Although Engelmayer thinks Kunis and Kutcher deserve more compassion, their execution on the apology was poor.
"They defended themselves saying that they did it for the judge to see and [for the judge] to be lenient on Masterson. Anyone with some notion of how empathy works should appreciate that in writing the letters to the judge, they were acknowledging Masterson's crimes, the victims' statements and the jury's verdict, and that the Danny Masterson they knew for 25 years presented to them in a very different way back then," he continues. "The problem is that they weren't clear, and they seemed to suggest that no one else was meant to see the notes. They could have done better."
Torossian agrees that "their apology video wasn't great."
"It came across as robotic and insincere, with each seemingly reading a script off-camera. That said, they followed 'Crisis 101,' which is apologizing when you make a mistake, and all in all it was a positive thing to do," he shares, but adds: "They should have put more effort and authenticity into the video for the apology to resonate."
What industry insiders think
Yahoo spoke to several people in the entertainment industry, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, and there was one underlying consensus about the Kutcher and Kunis situation.
"Not all that surprised by Ashton, to be honest, but Mila writing her own letter was certainly a shock," says one journalist who's been covering pop culture for decades. "It's not a good look for either of them, but for her she's going to get dragged because of Time's Up." (Kunis is part of the nonprofit that aims to end harassment, assault and discrimination.)
Another insider, who's worked with both actors, adds: "They won't be 'canceled,' but that was bad. It just goes against everything they seemingly stand for. Not a good look."
"Yikes," quips someone who runs in their outer social circle. "I get the need to want to help a friend, but after reading any of the testimony from either trial, I don't understand how you do that."
'This has been especially damaging for' Kutcher
The former Punk'd host is no stranger to scandals. Many have played out in public, like the cheating allegations at the end of his marriage to Demi Moore, though he seemed to move past his "bro-y" reputation, especially when he reconnected with Kunis. But now in the wake of the Masterson letters becoming public, old videos have emerged of Kutcher making degrading comments about women.
“Ashton has grown up in the public eye and with that comes a natural maturity. This has been especially damaging for him, bringing to light some of his past moments of poor judgment and scandals he has been linked to, and introducing these topics to younger fans who never knew he had his downfalls," Torossian says. "It also brings people to question the causes he's aligned with, like Thorn ... and how sincere or appropriate his relationship to these causes might be."
'Ashton and Mila will recover from this'
In their expert opinions, both Torossian and Engelmayer believe this is nothing more than a bump in the road for the power couple.
"I'm very confident Ashton and Mila will recover from this, and a year or two from now this will all be forgotten," Torossian states.
Engelmayer also calls out cancel culture, which isn't exactly having its moment anymore.
"Kunis and Kutcher are, above all else, human, and they had a friend and had good experiences with him, which we all can appreciate from our own lives," Engelmayer notes.
What should they do now? Nothing.
"What's really damaging is this story isn't about them and was never supposed to be about them; it's about the victims of Danny Masterson, whose moments of justice have become overshadowed and lessened by these two," Torossian says. "Now that they have shared their apology, it's time for them to take a step away from the media for a while."
Engelmayer agrees: "They will recover from this, but it will take a bit of time to pass. They probably would be best to not make another [apology] or try to reexplain. Let it pass. They will be fine."