Moneybox

What Was VW Thinking With Its “Voltswagen” Prank?

A confusing publicity stunt reminds the public of the carmaker’s untrustworthiness.

A VW logo reflecting a building is seen on the grille of a car.
The storage facility auto tower of German carmaker Volkswagen is reflected in a VW logo at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Friday. Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout these early months of 2021, automobile companies been busy letting everyone know that, much like Bob Dylan, they’re going electric. General Motors, Ford, Jaguar, Volvo, and the federal government have all announced this year that they’re planning to heavily ramp up electric vehicle production, with the goal of greening their fleets and, in some cases, entirely phasing out traditional gas-powered combustion vehicles by 2030. Auto lobbying groups have also petitioned President Joe Biden to extend tax credits for EV purchases in order to incentivize production, while the chief executive’s newly unveiled infrastructure plan clearly wants to make EVs more of A Thing. It’s happening, folks!

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On Monday, it seemed like Volkswagen was doing its best to make sure its own yearslong pivot to electric didn’t get overlooked, by announcing a snazzy name change for its U.S. division on its website: Voltswagen. The German brand that literally translated to “people’s car” would now be known in the States as … the volts’ car, I guess?

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Except that Volkswagen is now explaining it was apparently an elaborately overdesigned April Fool’s prank, one that somehow launched three days before the holiday and burned through its entire life cycle before the end of March.

It began with CNBC reporting that Volkswagen had accidentally posted a press release to its website, which was meant to announce the rebranding of its U.S. operations as Voltswagen of America by May. That press release was dated April 29, making the release a month premature, and it wasn’t quite yet finished—the sloppy copy said it still needed a quote and a photo. It also stated that all the company’s newly produced EVs would feature the new “Light Blue” Voltswagen logo, with gas-powered cars retaining the symbol treated with the “iconic VW Dark Blue.”

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The company took the announcement down, but according to CNBC, “a person familiar with the company’s plans confirmed the authenticity of the release.” Volkswagen U.S. again confirmed the plan to the Verge on Tuesday and put the release back up on its site, with a new dateline of March 30 and no lingering quote-and-photo request to boot.

But then! Later that same day, a company worker from Volkswagen’s international headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, told the Wall Street Journal that “there will be no name change,” calling new branding a “premature April Fool’s joke” that was “part of a marketing campaign” for the company’s first all-electric SUV, the ID.4, which went on sale in the U.S. this month.

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A short news item from Reuters backed this up, citing “three sources briefed on the matter” who claimed the press release was a “marketing stunt” and that “the automaker currently plans to announce on Wednesday it is not serious about changing its name.” Another anonymous spokesperson from the Wolfsburg headquarters told Bloomberg that the voltage is part of “a hoax meant to draw attention to VW’s electrification strategy” that came “from the marketing department.”

The Reuters report also said Wolfsburg would clarify the unseriousness of the name change Wednesday; CNBC, the original news breakers, chimed in with an update featuring a statement from Mike Tolbert, Volkswagen’s U.S. spokesman—“The renaming was designed to be an announcement in the spirit of April Fool’s Day, highlighting the launch of the all-electric ID.4 SUV”—and quoted another anonymous person who claimed VW would clear the air Wednesday morning.

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But Wednesday morning came and went, and as of this writing the only clarification the Wolfsburg execs have provided seems to be a one-note statement provided to Reuters—“We regret if it appeared to some that we overshot the mark of the campaign.” Volkswagen of America, meanwhile, seemed to cop to the joke in a tweet that was then retweeted by the German headquarters’ news account.

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In fairness to Volkswagen’s comms artists in both Germany and the U.S., the company left a lot to clarify here. If this was indeed a prank pegged to April Fool’s Day, why did it launch ahead of schedule? If the campaign was meant to launch at the end of the month instead, how would that square with Tuesday’s release of the ID.4, if this had been meant to boost the ID.4’s stateside debut? Why was the press release reinstated on Volkswagen’s site and then taken down hours later? Why did sources inside Volkswagen appear to mislead or straight-up lie to various reporters?

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And since, as the WSJ reported, the announcement caused VW’s stock to rise in both Germany and the U.S. before it fell again following the revelation of the joke, could the Securities and Exchange Commission get involved, seeing as false statements that juice stocks are considered legal liabilities? (I have reached out to the SEC for comment and will update if I hear back.)

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Whatever VW was doing, it was doing it with a head-spinning degree of elaborateness.  On Tuesday morning, the Twitter account for the Volkswagen USA brand at @VW—but not the accounts for the parent company Volkswagen Group or for the central German headquarters—changed its display name to Voltswagen and posted a brief video with the new name doused in pretty lights.

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Meanwhile, if this was all a big event for the ID.4, the company already seemed to have a different marketing plan in place. On Monday, a MediaPost piece noted that “Volkswagen is launching a campaign tonight for its ID.4 that shows how electric vehicles will change the world,” in a campaign meant to be “witty and relatable” (a quote from the company). This initiative included three 30-second ads meant to air Monday, which you can watch on Volkswagen USA’s YouTube channel. But none of the ads use “Voltswagen,” and neither do their YouTube descriptions.

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Speaking of YouTube, it’s worth noting that for a brief moment on Tuesday, the Volkswagen USA channel was renamed Voltswagen USA, with the new Voltswagen logo as its cover image. This was the case across all social media. The official Facebook account for the central company didn’t change its display name, but its cover photo featured the Voltswagen logo. (The cover images for both YouTube and Facebook now just use photos of the ID.4.) The Instagram account for @VW (but not the official German account at @Volkswagen) changed its display name to Voltswagen and also posted the same rebranding video that was seen on Twitter; the display name is now back to normal and the most recent Instagram post is a copy of the “Watt Happened?” tweet.

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The Voltswagen Youtube page
Screenshot from YouTube
The Voltswagen Facebook banner
Screenshot from Facebook
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So clearly, the U.S. division of Volkswagen was going all-in on this. Indeed, the press release that kicked this off featured this quote from Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen America: “We might be changing out our K for a T, but what we aren’t changing is this brand’s commitment to making best-in-class vehicles for drivers and people everywhere.”

As a full fake-rebranding ploy, like the infamous IHOP/IHOB switch in 2018, it seems like an odd choice—like an advertising officer told Bloomberg, why would you make a joke out of such an important announcement? A first all-electric SUV is a huge deal in a time that’s seen sales of both electric vehicles and SUVs rise significantly, but the company ended up subordinating the rollout of the ID.4 to a bunch of noise about branding and publicity strategy.

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And considering the fallout from 2015’s diesel scandal, which saw Volkswagen get caught gaming the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions tests for its supposedly environmentally friendly vehicles, you’d think VW’s next attempt to promote a climate-conscious green technology would be less … duplicitous. Plus, it seems that investors, who’ve been psyched about EV companies as of late, were really into the Voltswagen idea, which caused them to up the value of the company under falsified circumstances. After the company already once got in heavy trouble with the EPA, why would it wish to possibly rankle the SEC as well?

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The company formerly known as Voltswagen of America claimed that “people talking about electric driving and our ID.4 can only be a good thing.” If this has indeed brought more attention to VW’s latest electric vehicle outputs, is paving the way for more such announcements and rollouts in the future, and manages to avoid regulatory or legal scrutiny, then perhaps the Voltswagen gag was a successful experiment all along. At least you now know that Volkswagen has an interesting-looking all-electric SUV. Maybe you’ll even want to buy it now and slap your own custom-made “Voltswagen” bumper sticker onto it while you celebrate cutting gas-engine emissions from your carbon footprint.

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Or maybe this has all been a horrible mess that will deepen distrust in Volkswagen far more than even before. However it goes, it will be hard for reporters to believe whatever else Volkswagen may say about itself.

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Update, April 1, 2021, at 3:27 p.m.: After publication, a Volkswagen of America spokesman provided this statement to Slate:

Volkswagen of America developed and implemented a marketing campaign to draw attention to Volkswagen’s e-mobility rollout and the market launch of the all-electric ID.4 SUV. Our intent was to bring light to this collective mindset in a fun and interesting way as an April Fool’s Day effort. There have already been similar campaigns in Wolfsburg, Germany: In 2003, the temporary renaming of Wolfsburg as Golfsburg drew attention to the market launch of the then Golf. The many positive responses on social media showed that this campaign resonated with consumers. At the same time, we realize the announcement rollout upset some people and we are sorry about any confusion this has caused. We will continue on our mission towards an EV future, as Volkswagen.

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