Volkswagen’s "Voltswagen" Prank Backfired—and Now There’s an SEC ProbeVolkswagen lied to sell the April Fool’s stunt, and that’s not funny.See all 18 photosAaron GoldAuthorManufacturerPhotographerGetty ImagesPhotographerMay 4, 2021
Update 5/4/21: According to a report from Reuters, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has opened an inquiry to determine if VW of America’s premature «Voltswagen» April Fool’s prank broke the law. After the phony name change was confirmed by VWoA management and praised by at least one analyst, stick prices rose noticeably—The Detroit Bureau reports that VW stock opened at $32.40 at the beginning of the week and rose as high as $38.46 before the ruse was revealed, closing at $35.58 on Thursday, April 1. VWoA CEO Scott Keogh has since taken responsibility and apologized for the prank, which was intended to generate buzz for the brand’s upcoming electric vehicles. Volkswagen has already been in trouble for lying to regulators in what became known as the Dieselgate scandal, which has reportedly cost the company $34 billion in fines and fixes.
As the Top Gear UK boys used to say, «That’s not gone well.»
As most automotive industry observers now know, Volkswagen of America pulled an early April Fools’ prank wherein it was changing its name to «Voltswagen. » Several major media outlets published the story after being assured by Volkswagen that it was true—and now that it’s come to light that the whole thing was a badly-executed prank, those media outlets are really, really upset.
Automotive News penned an editorial called «VW lied to sell diesels; now it lied to sell EVs.» Bloomberg wrote, «VW may have gone too far,» and suggested the company «leave the jokes to people who are actually funny. » Slate called it «A confusing publicity stunt» that «reminds the public of the carmaker’s untrustworthiness,» a reference to the Dieselgate emissions-cheating scandal. The Associated Press named names, reporting it was assured by a specific PR staffer of the story’s veracity before that person then «came clean» on Tuesday.
So what’s the issue here? It’s not just that VW pulled a prank of questionable funniness and that a few reporters are mad about being duped. It’s that VW apparently lied to reporters in a situation where a simple «no comment» would more than suffice. (For the record, Volkswagen did not lie to MotorTrend or any of its associated publications.)
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One could argue that the negative news cycle this has generated could be a positive using the «any publicity is good publicity» viewpoint. True, people are talking about Volkswagen—but not for the right reasons. Remember that Volkswagen lied to the public and deceived government regulators about diesel emissions in the infamous «Dieselgate» scandal. It wasn’t the only company to do so, but VW’s egregious conduct in the matter got the brunt of the blame and the bad publicity. To be branded as liars again—and justifiably so—isn’t a good look for the company.
Furthermore, Volkswagen’s stock prices rose in response to the pre-April 1 «Voltswagen» announcement, and as many outlets have reported, that could attract the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the ire of those who lost money as the stock sank once the truth was learned.
What about the media’s perspective? Let’s start with a little inside baseball. One of the quirks of automotive journalism is that we necessarily work very closely with our PR colleagues, as writing car content requires a great deal of coordination with them to gain access to engineers and executives, verify specifications, and glean all kinds of additional information to round out our stories; these relationships therefore require boundaries and trust.
The upside is that most of the major players—both writers and PR staffers—know each other pretty well. We, like many outlets, were skeptical when the «Voltswagen» news arrived a couple of days before April 1. We sent a note to one of our PR contacts at Volkswagen: «Off the record, is this serious?» We received a polite reply that they could not comment.
«No comment» was pretty much what we expected, although we thought we might get a background confirmation that it may be a prank, or possibly even a more direct, «It’s a joke, but you can’t publish that until April 2.» We’d honor that request, at least knowing that our skepticism was justified; some might disagree with that course of action, but that’s one of the boundaries. What we would not expect—never in a million years—would be for our source to say «Yes, this is story is true» when it wasn’t. That’s outside the boundaries and a violation of the trust we’ve built over the years.
And yet that’s apparently what Volkswagen did with some media outlets—including Nathan Bomey of USA Today, who reported, «USA Today specifically asked a VW spokesperson if the announcement was a joke and was told no.» Bomey later tweeted, «Dear Volkswagen, you lied to me. You lied to AP, CNBC, Reuters and various trade pubs. » We spoke to a colleague at another publication, who told us they too asked repeatedly if the story was true. The PR contact «obfuscated,» our colleague said, not confirming but giving longer answers implying that the story was true. «I felt lied to,» the reporter told us.
What surprises us is that Volkswagen PR would not simply deny comment with everyone, as they did with us, instead choosing in some cases to give evasive, deceptive, or outright untrue answers. Many of those cases involved seasoned journalists who are known to be fair and trustworthy in their reporting. Should they have attempted to independently verify the news via URL registrations, patent filings, or similar sources? Should they, as we were, have been skeptical the German arm was suspiciously silent about the whole affair? Undoubtedly. But they have the same relationship we have with the automakers—which is to say when they see an official release and are told it’s true from a company rep, they put stock in it—and the last thing they expected was to be lied to. And because they believed Volkswagen, they inadvertently lied to their readers. And that’s about the worst thing a news outlet can do.
The sad part is that this whole fracas is much ado about what could have been nothing. Had Volkswagen released this story on April 1, the reception would have been completely different. We would have assumed (correctly) it was an April Fools’ Day prank. It likely would have been regarded as a witty way of turning a lame holiday for lame jokes into a humorous, meaningful, and much-needed promotion for the Volkswagen ID4 (a very competent electric SUV, by the way, and one that deserves some attention).
See all 18 photos
Does any of this really matter? It may. As journalists, we’re a little sensitive these days due to the politicizing of the media. While MotorTrend doesn’t cover much mainstream news, we feel the sting of the «fake news» accusations. Preserving our integrity with our readers is of paramount importance to everyone on our masthead. It’s upsetting to see colleagues being duped into reporting actual fake news as true, and doing so because they assumed they could trust people with whom they have decades-long relationships.
Even though Volkswagen did the right thing by us, we think our colleagues’ anger is justified. A fellow reporter put it best: «As reporters, our only product is our own credibility. They stole that credibility from us and used it to sell cars.»