For better or worse, certain sectors of the auto industry participate in the annual April Fool’s Day tradition. We roll our eyes and report the stories that flood the April 1st news, knowing full well that each one comes with an elbow or wink from the promoters who planned the absurd each year. But this year, Volkswagen took April Fool’s Day too far.
For those lucky enough not to hear about it, on the afternoon of March 29, USA Today published a report that claimed Volkswagen was changing its name to “Voltswagen” after a press release dated April 29, appear briefly on the VW of America media page. USA Today sought out a VW spokesman who declined to comment, although the company spoke to an anonymous source who confirmed that the launch was not a joke. I immediately looked for two sources at Volkswagen of America – one offered a “no comment”, while the other confirmed the news “em off“.
On Tuesday, VW made its move, changing the logos, updating Twitter identifiers and issuing a real press release with comments from VW of America President and CEO Scott Keogh, confirming that the change would officially take place in May. 2021. The press release was an official statement – it was not a nudge or a wink that suggested a joke. Motor1.com (first in our edition in the United States), like almost all other communication vehicles, swallowed the bait (official bait). We were wrong.
There is an argument to be made that all of this was a mistake, that Volkswagen accidentally published the launch before, instead of publishing on April 1, and simply failed to recover from that error.
But if I wanted to completely mislead the media, I would do exactly what happened here: publish the statement and wait until someone important takes the story, then take the statement off the air so that it looks like a mistake, knowing that nothing sets the fires on fire. media as an “accidental” leak by the automaker. I would confirm the news repeatedly to anyone who asked for comments. Then I would sit and watch.
While in recent years falling for the prank would result in nothing more than some humorous jokes from colleagues and friends on Twitter, Volkswagen’s feat has fallen differently. After four years of fighting fake news, we found that the company’s decision to deceive the press in the service of its deaf joke tone. The reactions on Twitter were in equal parts fast and sharp, like the example below:
This whole episode really pissed me off. Not because we (Motor1.com and other media outlets in the automotive media) fell for the joke, but because much of it was based on spokespeople we used to trust directly. Volkswagen, as a company, has struggled to regain public confidence and rehabilitate its image after Dieselgate, the diesel emissions scandal and, so far, was doing well. I loved ID.4 when I drove it and I’ve been excited about the prospects for electric Volkswagens ever since.
This feat is a black mark on Volkswagen’s progress. And while it is easy to see what is written here as a sign of virtue in the name of honesty and the sanctity of journalism, Volkswagen’s decision to deceive the media and the public (again, it can be argued) had real consequences beyond from our little corner on the internet.
The company’s stock price opened on Monday morning at $ 33.13. At around 3pm on Tuesday, it went over $ 38. As the tweet above notes, a market analyst even issued a note about the name change. Jokes are no longer jokes when they have consequences in the real world, and it is very clear, based on a quick look at stock prices, that Volkswagen America’s mistake had very real consequences.
I’ll leave you with one last tweet about Nick Bunkley’s latest VW controversy from Automotive News:
Apparently, the American leadership did not find the joke so serious. This Wednesday, March 31, VW America shared a
as if that was still a big joke, instead of a huge public relations mistake. But, to quote an internet meme, when the joke is over, the person who made the prank should be laughing too. For every great April Fool’s joke, there are 10 bad jokes. But there has never been a single one that has damaged the confidence that the media has in a company’s word. Yet.
What began as an April Fool’s effort got the whole world buzzing. Turns out people are as passionate about our heritage as they are about our electric future. So whether it’s Voltswagen or Volkswagen, people talking about electric driving and our ID.4 can only be a good thing. pic.twitter.com/Rzx8mJgxkT— Volkswagen (@VW) March 31, 2021
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