The Internet's idiot-savant, Ashton Kutcher, has messed up online, again. This latest controversy revolves around him dressing up in "brownface" for Popchips, and, yes, it's as bad as it sounds. But beyond this immediate kerfuffle, we realize something. With flub after flub, does Kutcher still deserve the "social media genius" label thrust upon him? We don't think so.
There was once a day when Kutcher could be properly described as the king of Twitter. After failing to parlay his sitcom second banana status into a movie career (anyone remember Butterfly Effect?), Kutcher rebooted and rebranded himself as the face of Web 2.0. A fawning Newsweek profile from 2009, proclaimed "Ashton Kutcher is Smarter Than You."
"Ashton’s film career has been under the radar for the last several years, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. For starters, he’s the most-followed man on Twitter—3.2 million people read his tweets," wrote Newsweek's Anne Becker. Since he was a mediocre actor by even his own admission (“I always felt like I wasn’t great at anything, so I should just be good at a lot," he told Newsweek) he needed some claim to fame if profiles were going to be written about him. And social media genius it was.
Flash forward three years, where Twitter has matured and Kutcher has fallen to the No. 16 ranking in number of Twitter followers. That's certainly very respectable, but, really, can he still be considered a master of all things Internet? Let's see:
- In July 2011, Kutcher got into a spat with The Village Voice after it published a story critical of Kutcher's "frat boy humor" approach to raising awareness on sex trafficking while inflating the number of sex-trafficked children in the United States from 827 to "100,000-300,000," according to The Voice. Ashton lost his cool with a Twitter rant, posting "REAL MEN DON'T BUY GIRLS and REAL NEWS PUBLICATIONS DON'T SELL THEM." After being egged on by The Voice, Kutcher turned to bullying the paper's advertisers via Twitter. We tend to agree with Kutcher on this issue, sexual slavery being bad and all. (Seriously, The Voice, why do you dig yourself into a hole on this issue?) But Kutcher didn't look too calm on the medium he's suppose to be the master of.
- A month later, in August, a few more people drank the Kutcher-as-techno-wizard Kool-Aid when it was announced that he would be "guest editor" of an online-only "Social Issue" of Details. Such a great crossover! ... except for this bit of undue synergy: "he failed to fully disclose his investments in Internet companies profiled in the issue," according to The New York Times' Nick Bilton. Companies he simultaneously promoted and had interest in included Foursquare, Flipboard and Airbnb. In the fallout, both the FTC and SEC concerning investigation. #fail
- In November 2011, tables turned against Kutcher, again over of all things child abuse. "How do you fire Jo Pa? #insult #noclass as a hawkeye fan I find it in poor taste," he tweeted in defense of Joe Paterno, accused of covering up the rapes of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. After apologizing for being on the wrong side of the zeitgeist against JoPa, Kutcher handed over control of his Twitter account to a "management team."
- And finally, there's Popchip-gate, where Kutcher bronzes himself, flaunts his acting chops with a terrible Indian accent in an ad for the chips, and upset the entire Internet. The spot was designed go viral in promotion of Popchip, but of course it went viral in an entirely different way. It followed a slightly anti-Mexican spot for Popchips from February that should have raised red flags.
So even with people around him supposedly carefully grooming his online presence so something like his pro-Paterno tweet didn't happen again, Kutcher has created another, probably bigger controversy. Forbes' Jeff Bercovici read into Kutcher's rise and fall a sign of a tech bubble. We wouldn't go that far, but we call this a last straw for Kutcher's social-media bona fides. Here's our moratorium: Let's not refer to Kutcher as a social media genius again. Is it even possible for Kutcher to regain his tech shine? Maybe he can as Steve Jobs. That guy's always had a magic touch.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.