Pop Culture

'Sorry' seems to be the hardest word for Rebecca Lim

Actress' retirement stunt on her Instagram account raises questions about commercial endorsements on social media

Rebecca Lim did not respond when asked if the retirement announcement was a stunt.
Rebecca Lim did not respond when asked if the retirement announcement was a stunt. PHOTO: ST FILE

Once upon a time, there was a well-liked and well-regarded young actress.

But one day, she pulled an I'm-retiring-no-lah-I'm-not stunt on social media and faced a barrage of criticism.

The "retiring" announcement by Mediacorp actress Rebecca Lim appeared on her Instagram account last Friday morning.

Here is the post in full, which accompanied a picture of her smiling, with a sparkler in hand: "Hi everyone. I've decided to do something that will change my life. I have been thinking about it for a while now as I know it has to be done. I'm all set and I'm retiring. I know you have questions for me and I will answer them real soon. Meanwhile, be happy for me."

It seemed like a genuine post and her fans soon left messages of support while others expressed how they felt with strings of broken heart emojis.

Ten hours later, in a telephone conference call, she revealed that she was not, in fact, retiring and the post was a "collaboration" with insurance company NTUC Income.

She said: "I feel sorry for any misunderstanding that is being caused. Unfortunately, there are many people who have misinterpreted or misunderstood... I don't think I'm making use of the media. I'm just trying to maximise my reach as a celebrity."

Really? Misinterpretation? Misunderstanding?

She was plainly being disingenuous. The wording of the post was designed to make people think she was retiring from her job, which is acting.

On Monday, the insurance company - which said it had written the post with Lim - decided to bend the definition of "retire", saying that it is a journey and that Ms Lim was engaged to talk about retirement planning.

It declared: "We did not set out to mislead anyone."

This seemed to be adding insult to injury.

When the Instagram post first surfaced, a few of us in the office had debated whether it was a publicity stunt and tried to verify it with Mediacorp and Lim herself.

Mediacorp's artist managers replied with the same holding line: "Thank you for your concern about Rebecca. She will have answers to your questions soon."

In a text message, Lim promised to update "as soon as I can", but when asked specifically if the post was a publicity stunt, she did not respond.

Here was her chance to clear up the misunderstanding, if she indeed did not mean for anyone to think she was quitting acting. But she did not do it.

More disingenuousness, more misleading?

To many fans, her "sorry for any misunderstanding" felt more like "sorry you were gullible".

Her claim of "I felt it was my responsibility to clear the air immediately" rang hollow, given the wording of the post and the time lapse between the post and the clarification.

Meanwhile, "sorry" seems to be the hardest word as both Lim and the insurance firm in question have stopped short of apologising for stringing fans and the media along.

So what are the lessons here for celebrities and for fans?

Thou shall not use social media as an advertising platform? The ship has long since sailed on that front as bloggers and celebrities hawk products with big smiles and personal discount codes.

At the very least, be honest when you are plugging a product or service. Advertisements in newspapers, on television and on radio have to be clearly indicated as such.

Perhaps it is time for such a code of conduct to be extended to social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook which are also used to shill products.

Lim had previously used Instagram to sing the praises of nutritional supplements and skincare products in what were, without a doubt, paid endorsements. So clearly, she knows how the advertising game is played.

Has her popularity taken a hit? Not if you look at the number of her followers on Instagram - it has edged up from 229,000 on late Feb 12 night to 230,000 on Feb 16 - although it is possible that there are gleeful trolls among the new followers.

Yes, we know that celebrities are out to sell something - be it their movies, music or retirement planning.

But in the case of Ms Lim's retirement stunt, she has made use of her popularity to mislead fans. While nobody died or was harmed in the making of the stunt, her credibility and that of NTUC Income's have taken a hit.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Sorry' seems to be the hardest word for Rebecca Lim. Subscribe