Rebecca Lim: Celebrity sell or sell-out?

IF YOU don’t know by now why Rebecca Lim is being labeled a sell-out, try Googling “NTUC Income” and looking under the ‘News’ category. The award-winning Mediacorp actress caused a stir last week when she announced her “retirement” on Instagram but then released a video the next day to say that it was all an act to bring attention to insurer NTUC Income’s retirement plans.

The admission of the lie was flippant, enhanced by Mediacorp entertainment magazine 8 Days calling “Fake out!” on their Instagram account, like one does at the pulling of a juvenile prank. Mediacorp news outlets TODAY and Channel NewsAsia both gave credence to the lie by publishing the news of her retirement, but deleted or hid the news reports after it was revealed to be fake. Neither outlet has followed up on the scandal.

The PR stunt earned a harsh response, and many felt cheated by the cheap trick of using the outpouring of emotion and well-wishes over her fake retirement for commercial gain. People on social media started calling her names like “another dumb money grabbing actress”. Others were quick to point the finger at NTUC Income’s marketing team for a “lousy PR stunt” that damages the company’s integrity. Celebrity blogger mrbrown turned on caps lock on Facebook to slam both Rebecca Lim and the insurer for lying.

But let’s think about it: a core part of celebrity work is to sell brands and products. Endorsements and ambassadorships are par for the course, but when is the line between selling and selling-out crossed?

As a PR practitioner, I find the whole plan baffling: how could an insurance company conceptualise a publicity stunt that involves deception when one of the core values they are trying to sell is “trust”? That’s like a casket company playing a prank at a funeral where they make the person pretend he is dead, and then he jumps out of the coffin in front of his grieving family during the eulogy and shouts “SURPRISE”! That will earn you plenty of attention, but what will people think of you afterwards?

Celebrities have always been involved in stunts but as long as it seems to sell themselves, their albums or their movies it’s not taken as deception, it’s entertainment.

From Lady Gaga’s meat dress to Janet Jackson’s ‘Nipplegate’, celebrities have pulled stunts for decades to get people talking. Results vary, however, and there are rules to the game when you want to tease your fans. And the first rule is to never try selling anything else but yourself through these stunts.

So go ahead and pretend to have a catfight with the leading lady of Caldecott hill in the middle of Orchard Road to sell the latest Mandarin drama serial, or bitch about a popular love-to-hate female blogger to drive traffic to your personal blog, but don’t you dare make this a publicity stunt for the opening of a new mall.

Now like pro wrestling, celebrity PR stunts are all good if everyone involved in the situation knows it’s fake but gives an illusion of reality, like Singa writing a letter to resign as Singapore Kindness Movement’s mascot. Since Singa is a fictitious character without an employment contract, it was clear that it was probably a PR stunt. There was no true deception involved – the worst you could say about it was that it as attention-seeking behaviour, par for the course for celebrities. Nobody gets emotionally invested and nobody gets hurt at the eventual turnaround.

The same goes for bloggers who get paid to endorse brands or eateries without declaring that they received payment for their endorsement – a line gets crossed and trust is broken.

To those who say that there is no such thing as bad publicity – there is. If a brand handles a backlash well and turns the negative attention into a positive vibe, then all is well. But if the first thing on people’s minds when you mention your brand is negativity and controversy rather than your corporate message, then you’ve lost out.

Did NTUC Income turn this gaffe around? At a press conference today, their Chief Marketing Officer, Mr Marcus Chew said, “We did not set out to mislead anyone. We regret upsetting anyone over the weekend.

Retirement is a journey. Anyone can be on a plan and be on the journey.”

Wow. Make a claim of innocent intent and then cut straight to the sales pitch. Is it all about money to this company? The issue is that people were misled – lied to – in what was probably a very deliberate, carefully-signed-off-at-every-stage-by-everyone marketing plan. How could NTUC Income write a lie into the heart of the plan and then claim it was unintentional? Excuse me if I don’t believe you.

And what possessed Rebecca Lim and her agency (also a Medicorp company) to play along? Was the money big enough to buy their integrity? Or was it big enough for you to leave their brains at the dotted line? Would anyone believe that accountancy graduate Lim was simply naïve?

So, Rebecca, no one is angry with you with for being an NTUC Income ambassador. Just don’t lie to your fans and make it seem like a big joke when the news is out. And saying that “you are just doing your job” really doesn’t put you in a good situation either. Take a lesson from pro-wrestling – you can fake it to entertain, but you won’t win any fans when you sell out.

#RebeccaLim #Retire

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