Stealth Marketing Gone Wrong in Singapore


Stealth Marketing Gone Wrong in Singapore

Listen before you speak

Stealth Marketing » noun | a marketing strategy that advertises a product to people without them knowing they are being marketed to, also known as ‘buzz marketing’ –

As we ushered in the year of the monkey, Singaporeans had more to chew than the usual delicacies this lunar New Year. Making its rounds along with the customary house visiting was news of a 29 year-old Singaporean actress’ retirement.

What, retiring at 29? That’s too young in Singapore, where the minimum retirement age has increased thrice in the past 2 decades.

If you think this is controversial, read on.

What began as a simple Instagram post by popular local actress, Rebecca Lim, very quickly manifested into a heated debate on the integrity of celebrities who hand out their endorsements in return for lucrative benefits.


“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 retiring. I know you may have questions for me and I will answer them real soon. Meanwhile, be happy for me.” – Rebecca Lim

Following this post, the star was bombarded with questions behind her decision. Stunned fans were baffled by her sudden decision to exit showbiz.

Starting her career in 2008, the young actress had already reached the height of stardom when she won the Best Actress Award at the 15th Asian Television Awards (a regionally equivalent Golden Globe) in 2010. Touted to be at the prime of her career, Rebecca was certainly nowhere close to retirement.

Just as the discussions heightened, the actress released another statement that brought all speculations to a halt, steering conversations right up the alley of controversy.

In what appeared as a self-recorded video, the grinning actress clarified that she was not retiring after all. What? Was her account hacked and the post a result of an ill-humored delinquent posing as Rebecca?

It turned out that the actress had been contracted by homegrown insurance giant, NTUC Income as their endorser for its new retirement plan. Aimed at the young, the post was part of a marketing stunt intended to get conversations started on the importance of planning early for retirement.

The stunt certainly got tongues wagging, but not in the manner that NTUC Income had hoped for.

Over the next few days, hundreds of negative comments came pouring in on social media channels and local websites – most of which questioned the integrity of the actress as well as the company behind the distasteful and deceitful marketing play.

The incident soon became an excellent case study, demonstrating the thin but dangerous line between creative and misleading messaging. While many experts analyzed a variety of PR failures within, the planning (or lack of it) in this campaign was what caught my attention.

If the message was indeed a planted one, where was the accompanying ‘social media listening’ plan? Social media what? For the benefit of those hearing this term for the first time, allow me to pause for an explanation.


Social media listening is simply the process of monitoring what is said online. Just like how you monitor media channels for news pick-ups when you issue a press release, you monitor the online universe when you upload a post. Well, not all posts, but typically those that draw an immense reaction from the public.

In this example, NTUC Income had perpetuated Rebecca’s social media post, with the sole intent of stirring reactions. Why then, did the team miss out on monitoring the reactions?

Social media monitoring has gained great momentum over the years. It has become a reliable customer intelligence tool. Using analytical software, conversations on social media platforms ie. Facebook and Twitter can be trawled for customer feedback, sentiments and concerns surrounding an issue or product. While there are many free tools on the web that help companies decipher online conversations, more in-depth analytical tools are often customizable by professional marketing agencies.

Now, moving back to why the oversight cost NTUC Income its reputation…


Most marketing campaigns plan to elicit one particular reaction from its audience – to buy a product. From celebrity endorsements to product briefings, everything that transpires in between is an act of persuasion to make them (the audience) arrive at the final purchase decision.

However, in this campaign, there were two clear objectives. To 1) break the stereotype that retirement planning was less urgent for the young, given its distant future and 2) get young adults to purchase a retirement insurance with NTUC Income.

Such dual objective campaigns can only succeed if the audience clearly understands what exactly the marketer means. You cannot expect people to understand ‘retiring’ as anything other than what it actually means, unless you attempt at redefining it for them.

Listening to the conversations following the first post would have alerted NTUC Income that the target audience were not talking about their own retirement but about Rebecca’s retirement! Picking up this highly crucial information would have allowed the team to backtrack the first message and prevent the posting of the second message – which did nothing but confirm that the first was a premeditated trickery!

Unfortunately, NTUC Income is not the only ‘deaf’ organization amidst us.


Lured by the instant message amplification and mass outreach, many companies blast their social media sites with truck loads of marketing spill.

At a glance, many corporate social media pages can easily be mistaken for a second website! The sad truth…most corporate posts are mere uploaded to allow the marketing team to showcase ‘an integrated strategy’ in their post-campaign reporting.

With an army of writers, many companies’ social media pages are aggressively pushing content, endeavoring to garner as many ‘likes’ as possible. The more ‘likes’ the better isn’t it?

Rebecca’s video clarifying her ‘retirement’ received over a thousand likes, yet she was trampled online by fans for lying and knowingly misleading them. How can so many ‘like’ a statement yet react on the contrary?

So does ‘like’ also mean ‘unlike’? (Though now we have some light on this with Facebook’s new ‘reactions’ feature.)

How many stop to analyze the value their content offers to the readers? Or read the comments their post has received?

The world of social media has opened a whole new universe for marketers to explore. With these opportunities come responsibilities too. The responsibility to engage, inform and/or educate the audience with honesty and integrity.

In return, social media offers a sea of information to marketers, but only to those who care to listen.

As for NTUC Income, its nonchalance to listening continued causing more grieve to their reputation. This time it was in the form of a press conference.

But that is another discussion for another day …

Neethiya Sadagopal is the co-founder and Managing Director of VERO Communications.

Located in Singapore, VERO Communications, is the newest addition to the VERO network in the region. Combining strong local knowledge and regional experience, the firm offers strategic integrated marketing communication services for a variety of B-B industries.