‘Voltswagen’ pun turns into a bad joke

The prank eroded Volkswagen’s trust and credibility with the media.

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

In an apparent April Fool’s Day marketing ploy, Volkswagen of America falsely said it was planning to change its name to “Voltswagen” to support its shift to electric vehicles. But the joke could end up causing much more headache than laughter for the brand.

The gambit came to light on Monday when a press release dated April 29 appeared on the brand’s website in what appeared to be the premature publishing of a rebranding announcement. Pressed by reporters on whether it was just an April Fools’ Day gag, the automaker assured them it was planning to rebrand its U.S. division. News organizations such as CNBC, the Associated Press, Reuters and the BBC ran with the story.

However, a day later, the brand backtracked and acknowledged that “Voltswagen” was just a not fully baked April Fools’ Day joke, and journalists reacted with anger. The Voltswagen faux campaign was meant to attract attention to the brand’s electric vehicle capabilities and the launch of its all-electric ID.4 SUV.

“The fallout, which has been swift and brutal on both social media and in follow-up stories, shows how quickly communications professionals can damage their reputation if they intentionally deceive reporters, and it should serve as a case study in how not to treat the media,” said Brent Snavely, senior director, at Lambert & Co. and a one-time head automotive writer at the Detroit Free Press.

Dwayna Haley, SVP of brand innovation and impact at Porter Novelli, added that these types of fumbles happen when ideas are not pressure-tested with a diversity of perspectives.

Volkswagen said in a statement that its intent “was to bring to light this collective mindset in a fun and interesting way as an April Fool’s Day effort.” It described a similar campaign in Germany where in 2003, the city of Wolfsburg was temporarily renamed “Golfsburg” to draw attention to the launch of its Golf model, and said that campaign was a hit with consumers. 

“We realize the announcement rollout upset some people, and we are sorry about any confusion this has caused,” the automaker said in a statement. “We will continue on our mission toward an EV future, as Volkswagen.”

The automaker works with PR firm Edelman in the U.S. Representatives from the firm did not reply to requests for comment.

In today’s climate of defending against “fake news” accusations, journalists were not amused. Coverage invariably compared the incident to Volkswagen’s deception in installing software in its cars to disguise emission levels more than five years ago. 

Some experts have raised questions about whether the Securities and Exchange Commission could take action, given that Volkswagen’s stock rose 5% during the ruse. Reached by PRWeek, the SEC declined to comment. 

“Unless VW intended to juice its stock price, it’s unlikely the SEC would get involved in an apparent marketing ploy,” said Victor DiGioia, an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff. 

Even without legal troubles, the court of public opinion is in session. Snavely said the duped reporters included some of the industry’s most respected automotive journalists, and they felt they let down their readers and harmed their own credibility.

“Several of the reporters were initially skeptical and thought it was a joke, but have told me that the company made an effort to convince them the news was real,” he said.

Haley agreed the prank eroded Volkswagen’s trust and credibility with the media. She suggested that Volkswagen should have senior-level conversations with editors from publications that ran the fake story, apologize and commit to respecting the relationship moving forward.

Yet Volkswagen will have a tough battle regaining the media’s trust, and it will face a much higher bar to get coverage for future announcements. This could translate into a negative impact on its brand reputation and business value, according to Porter Novelli. 

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