Post by Rebecca Lim about her "retirement"

Rebecca Lim’s ‘retiring’ semantics and the ethics of advertising

When that little voice in your head tells you that misleading the entire public may not be such a good idea, it might be wise to pause and think about it for a moment. Maybe run it by your colleagues or ask yourself how you would feel if you were a member of the public.

If no such voice exists, it is still not too late to apologise for your mistakes and learn from them. And if the folly of misleading everyone is still not apparent by now, hopefully a little reasoning may help.


For the uninformed, here are the facts.

On Feb 12, MediaCorp actress Rebecca Lim announced on her Instagram that she is “retiring”. She said, “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. Yes, I am retiring. I know you may have questions for me and I will answer them real soon. Meanwhile, be happy for me.”

Everyone, except for a few perpetual sceptics, immediately understood what this plainly meant. As is obvious, the construction of the message and the use of the word “retiring” suggested Rebecca Lim was retiring, as in, leaving her job soon.

Both TODAY and Channel NewsAsia believed she was retiring (in the normal sense). Her fans and almost everyone who replied believed it too, as is evidenced from their well-wishes. Only NTUC Income’s marketing agency was in on this and they could not clarify sooner, presumably because marketing experts don’t use social media on weekends.

On Feb 15, NTUC Income posted a contrived response on its Facebook page:

“Retiring is a journey and not an end. It’s about gaining financial independence to live life to the fullest today and be future ready. Retiring happens at various stages for different people and we encourage young people to begin the journey today. We did not set out to mislead through Rebecca’s ‘retiring’ announcement. Instead, we hoped to draw attention to the importance of securing one’s financial future.”

No apology was made. No harm, no foul, some say. Others remain indignant.

Words matter

To begin, let us accept that for us to communicate effectively, we must be able to agree on the meaning of the words we use. Although the same word may mean different things to different people, depending on the context in which it is used, in order for two people to understand each other, there must be no confusion as to what their words mean.

One might consider puns to be an exception to this. But even though puns are words that have two or more meanings, it is the recognition of words as puns that allows speakers to convey that witty humour or whatever subtext is intended. In fact, the meaning of a pun would be lost on a person who does not see it as a pun. So, pun or not, effective communication depends on a meeting of minds on the meaning of words.

There are a few ways to determine a word’s meaning and we may apply them to the current subject of controversy.

First, we may use a dictionary. According to The Free Dictionary, “retiring” is used to “indicate that someone will soon give up their present job.” How soon is soon? Certainly not decades.

Second, we may rely on how the word is commonly used to determine its meaning. If you have never used the word retiring to refer to a half-a-century-long process, rest assured, you are in good company.

Third, we may infer a word’s meaning from the context in which it is said, especially if there are multiple possible meanings (which isn’t the case here, but never mind). Rebecca Lim said that she wanted to change her life, she knew it was a big decision, she knew there would be questions and she knew people might feel sad for her. An insurance plan is obviously not as life changing as leaving a successful career at a young age. It is not a big decision, no one would question her about it, and no one would feel sad for her. Her message is clear, she is leaving the business (sad-face).

Fourth, we may infer its meaning from people’s responses. Clearly, the meaning of retiring as a decades-long process was a novel one that no one anticipated.

Certainly, new words may be coined and existing words can be used in novel ways. But when the novel meaning directly contradicts the existing meaning, one must give way. This is unless, as appears to be the case, the intention is not so much to introduce a new meaning as it is to stir up controversy by relying on an old meaning—in which case it may be asked if there was really any intention to introduce the new meaning at all.

So, NTUC Income’s claim that they did not intend to mislead is dubious at best. The whole purpose was to generate publicity through controversy. There would be no controversy if people knew she was simply getting an insurance plan. The point was to mislead and they certainly did that well.

Ethical advertising

The reason this discussion is important, and the reason why many people were upset, is because it involves issues of trust and honesty. Marketing is not merely about being creative, it is also about being ethical.

Unfortunately, NTUC Income’s flippant attitude demonstrates its disregard for ethical considerations. This is all the more problematic when one considers the insurance industry’s reputation for dishonesty. It simply isn’t doing itself any favours.

In fact, NTUC Income’s approach can be used to justify many other forms of false advertising.

For instance, one may use fine print to hide the negative parts of an offer and thus make the consumer believe that the product is better than it really is. Unsuspecting customers who believe the seller is acting in good faith typically do not spend hours on end combing through the fine print. Those who do, may not understand it all or may overlook important details anyway. As a result, the customer believes he is buying one thing but is actually being sold another. Surely it must be unethical for anyone to make a business out of deceiving customers.

The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) is extremely helpful here. If we consider Rebecca Lim’s publicity stunt a form of advertisement (hypothetically speaking), NTUC Income would have failed the test miserably.

Here are the relevant parts.

1.1 All advertisements should be legal, decent, honest, and truthful.

1.6 No advertisement should bring advertising into disrepute or reduce confidence in it as a service to industry and to the public.

3.1 This Code is to be applied in the spirit as well as in the letter.

3.3 Conformity with the Code is assessed according to the advertisement’s probable impact when taken as a whole or in context. This will depend on the audience, the medium, the nature of the product and any additional material distributed to consumers.

5.1 Advertisements should not mislead in any way by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise.

My point here is not that Ms Lim or NTUC Income should be sanctioned for falling foul of these sections of the SCAP. It is unclear that they have. Rather, it is to point out that in the absence of common sense, a little careful thought may go a long way.