By on March 31, 2021

I hope this is the last time I write about Volkswagen’s April Fool’s Day faceplant this week.

Really, I do. The clicks are nice, but variety is the spice of life.

That said, it’s been a lot to process, at least in terms of marketing crackups. I’ve reported on it, asked you about it, read Matt’s take — and before this story dies the death it so richly deserves, I just wanted to pile on one last hot take.

This morning, I asked you how bad the prank was. Meaning was it no big deal, mildly annoying, absolutely terrible, or what?

I think the one thing we can all agree on was that it was hamfisted. If the press release hadn’t been placed on VW’s media site prematurely, the whole kerfuffle gets avoided. The release runs tomorrow, everyone rolls their eyes, a few folks fulminate on Twitter about how crappy most April Fool’s jokes, especially those perpetrated by corporate America, are and we move on with our lives.

The problem, in my view, is that a bad decision followed. Volkswagen, wanting to avoid spoiling the joke, lied directly to, or at least inadvertently misled, the press. That decision, combined with a press release that looked quite real, led to some very good reporters believing that VW really was going forward with a name change. In fact, I bet some people still believe they really were considering the change and have used April Fool’s Day as an excuse to walk it back.

A point of clarification: We said yesterday the press was lied to, but further digging has shown that it’s unclear if the media was lied to or inadvertently misled, and VW declined to comment on the record when I reached out.

Predictably, some members of the press were quite upset. Understandably so, as no one likes to get fooled, and VW’s lies/untruths led to inaccurate reporting, which damages credibility. No journalist wants their credibility damaged by a lie or untruth someone else — someone they trusted — told. And as I wrote yesterday, this wasn’t the kind of claim a journalist could easily independently verify. CNBC, the Associated Press, USA Today, and others were at the mercy of VW.

Add in the added context of today’s discourse, which is chock full of powerful people and companies intentionally spreading misinformation for fun and profit, as well as the context of VW’s past sins regarding the truth, and well, it’s understandable that a lot of people were pissed off.

Update: Some folks have pointed out that journalists failed by not investigating domain names or trademark registrations. I think that’s a red herring, as we don’t know if the reporters did or did not look at those — at least one reporter mentioned on social media that he did, and he also pointed out that the lack of a domain or trademark registration isn’t necessarily proof that it was a prank. The point is, VW misled or outright lied to reporters who were skeptical and asking for confirmation.

I do think some of the outraged automotive journalists oversimplified things a bit. While I absolutely agree that they have a right to be pissed off at VW here — again, the reporters are going to take flack for something that someone else did, and that sucks — it’s not like automakers never lie to us or tell us untruths. To act as if they’ve never been lied to — or at least misled, even unintentionally — by an OEM source reads as a bit naïve.

That said, in this specific instance, VW had no reason, save for not spoiling the joke, to mislead anyone, and the topic of a brand changing names is big. So I understand why the reporters who were misled were upset. I would’ve been, too.

I mean, we believed it. In part, that’s on us for not reaching out to VW ourselves, which we usually do and should’ve done. Then again, we might’ve also been misled had we done so. Regardless, we believed that VW was changing names for two reasons: One, we trusted the reporting from USA Today and others, and two, because the press release looked legit.

That first reason is why the reporters are so upset. VW damaged not only its own credibility but also theirs. VW probably should’ve understood that reporters would take what they were told as the truth since there weren’t many other ways to easily and quickly verify what VW was saying, and that the most obvious way to verify the claim — the press release — didn’t give the appearance that VW was just having a laugh.

In the end, VW still got a lot of publicity — including several posts from us — and any professional relationships that were frayed might be smoothed out with time. Still, there are several lessons to be learned.

  • If you’re a company planning an April Fool’s press release, take extra care to make sure it doesn’t leak.
  • If it does leak, and reporters ask if the plans are real or part of a gag, and you don’t want to spoil the gag, either ignore the media until the full story comes out or find a way to deny the truth that isn’t going to mislead reporters into reporting a prank as real.
  • If you’re a reporter, make sure you pepper your story with caveats even if you think you have confirmation. And be careful about being overly reliant on sources. I understand that in this instance, it may have been difficult, if not impossible, to independently verify what sources said, but there may be creative ways to do so.

I can’t wait to see which brand screws up their April Fool’s gag next year.

[Image: Volkswagen]

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

23 Comments on “Volkswagen’s Prank Play Presents Problems [UPDATED]...”


  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Make it all about you, Tim.

    Have noticed some signs of life around these parts lately – stories with wider appeal attracting some meaningful comments from old-timers and some promising newcomers.

    But hey, I’m sure you can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      This is an opinion piece, at least in part. It’s also a bit analysis. It’s not really “all about me.” All about what I think, sure. But in case you haven’t noticed, TTAC has a history that long predates my employment of allowing the managing editor and staffers to express their opinion. It’s kinda how the site made its bones.

      As always, thanks for reading.

      • 0 avatar
        ToolGuy

        Matt did the original post on Monday. You’ve done five posts since then, using the word “I” almost 40 times (and the word “we” less than half that much – hmmmmm).

        My comment applies to the whole thing, not just this latest post (and I waited until now to post anything about you and your response to the whole deal, hoping you would get over it, but no).

        There’s absolutely no problem with anyone on the masthead posting an opinion. Informed opinions which are thought out in advance are even better. Hemming and hawing about struggling to form an opinion while your readers get to watch is less welcome. I’ve attempted to communicate that message to you in the past (I’m trying to help you obtain some new furniture, if that is your goal).

        The more you treat this site like a Slack channel (post an ‘opinion’ about a topic of relatively narrow interest, do an ‘update’ or two, then stand over the comments and immediately jump on anyone with a differing view), the more narrow will be the appeal. There is still huge potential out there – post a ‘real’ QOTD related to cars and then back off and let people chew on it (this means let the readers comment) and you’ll very likely see comments climb over the 100 mark as in the old days.

        • 0 avatar
          Tim Healey

          I thought out my opinion in advance, and it’s well informed based on everything I’ve read, already written, and a conversation I had with a VW source. And I did take into account the fact that we had several posts on the matter. Hence the lede saying I don’t want to cover it more.

          That said, you will notice all the posts cover different angles. Matt wrote a piece expressing displeasure when we thought the change was real. I asked a QOTD based on that assumption. I later reported it wasn’t real. I then later reported that there was concern about legal issues. I then asked a QOTD about the whole story, and finally gave my own opinion on the whole fiasco, which was separate from Matt’s take, as Matt and I were under the impression, at the time, that the name change was real.

          When writing an opinion/analysis post, I try to be nuanced, fair, and consider all sides, rather than just taking a strong position and ignoring contradictory arguments (I also try to avoid strawmanning). That might come across as me “hemming and hawing about struggling to form an opinion” but I promise you, it isn’t. That said, we are a blog, the news cycle moves fast, and some times that influences how the argument is made. I don’t have the luxury of having a week of research on an opinion piece, and I sometimes learn new info while writing.

          As for your wish for car-related QOTDs, there’s a Buick one that posted this morning and another planned for tomorrow. We have multiple coverage areas and you don’t have to read posts that don’t interest you. We serve a wide audience, and you are free to pick from the buffet as best suits you.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Meh. If your business is re-writing press releases then I guess you could be upset. I mean press releases are always accurate, right? But, if your business is being a reporter then doing some actual reporting — like checking to see if “voltswagen” had been registered as a trademark (doable online) — on a story that seemed fishy on its face, then you coulda had a real story.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      You’re the second person who has pointed out the trademark thing. Normally, that would be a good way to verify the claim, but I also understand it’s something reporters, even very good ones, might not think of (I didn’t). Also, Volkswagen actually uses VW.com for its consumer site, with Volkswagen redirecting, so in this case, that might not work.

      And that press release was legit. Or looked like it, anyway.

      I think what really happened here was simply that reporters had every reason to think this may be real, and weren’t given reason to think otherwise when they pressed their sources. It’s a PR failure on VW’s part, and journalists were collateral damage, and I am not sure approaching the reporting differently would’ve prevented that. I don’t think you can say the journalists failed, at least not completely, but there are lessons the press can learn, too.

  • avatar
    SharkDiver

    Journalists lie to the public all the time. Do I care that the most gullible of your ilk got pranked?…Nope.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Hate to burst your bubble bud, but most journalists don’t actively lie to the public, nor are they gullible.

      • 0 avatar
        SharkDiver

        So you realize how naive your statement sounds, right? History is rife with myriad examples of “journalists” actively lying to the public. Even in more benign circumstances, EVERYONE has biases, which invariably shape the way stories are written and presented. And then sometimes journalists are just lazy and/or gullible and fall for a prank. Happens to everyone at some point, just own it and move on.

        • 0 avatar
          Tim Healey

          I said “most” journalists. There are always exceptions.

          And yes, people have biases. Doesn’t mean journalists lie.

          Yeah, we owned that we fell for it. So did everyone else.

          • 0 avatar
            SharkDiver

            Well, not EVERYONE fell for it, but a lot did. I found the prank to be hilariously effective and it seems like the only folks that don’t share that opinion are the journalists that were duped. And now all the righteous indignation towards VW by these same journalists just makes it all the more rich. Certainly you can see why so many of us are loving this, right?

      • 0 avatar
        brn

        Tim, Mainstream media lies to the public all the time. Pick any controversial topic in the media right now and I can find countless lies. Intentional omission of facts for the intent to mislead is lying!

        I’m not saying it’s common or intentional with you or this site (anymore), just that it is something readers need to be aware of at all times.

        Until mainstream media STOPS their manipulative tactics, I find it entertaining if the press is lied to. :)

    • 0 avatar

      “Journalists lie to the public all the time.”

      Great observation. There is no “free press”. That’s their job – to misinform public according to wishes of their masters. I saw it in Soviet Union, I saw it in Russia and I see it in US.

      And VW publicly lying – where I heard it before?

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        Journalists don’t necessarily “need to lie to the public”. They can chose what to cover.

        • 0 avatar

          I did not say “lying”, I said misinforming. But lying too, the new generation of journalist do not check sources or corroborate information from several sources. Cannot believe that just year ago I still was watching NBC news every night on youtube channel. Now I completely ignore official media. When I came to US CNN had lot of conservative hosts like Glenn Beck and some others who later migrated to Fox News. And our local news channel in SF Bay area is Fox 7 – freaking left wing radicals. Today left/right polarization in US media is astounding.

  • avatar
    jalop1991

    “Volkswagen, wanting to avoid spoiling the joke, lied directly to, or at least inadvertently misled, the press.”

    GASP! how DARE they! Don’t they know that JOOR-NA-LYSTS are sacred???????

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Why don’t you cover the new Maverick truck. That would be more of an interest to many readers than an April fools joke about VW changing their name. Maybe you are biased against smaller trucks and trucks in general. I don’t really care if VW changes their name or if the new gm logo is not in caps. I like Corey’s stories and Murilee Martin’s Junkyard segments but segments like this have no interest to me or most readers.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    VW PR 5

    TTAC -2 for printing “I hope this is the last time I write about Volkswagen’s April Fool’s Day faceplant this week.

    Really, I do. The clicks are nice, but variety is the spice of life.”

    Seriously you could have stopped before this article IF you really wanted to. But as you said the clicks are nice and easy, so might as well milk it for all you can. You really should be thanking VW for all those clicks rather than being so pissed at them.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    VW PR 5

    TTAC -2 for printing “I hope this is the last time I write about Volkswagen’s April Fool’s Day faceplant this week.

    Really, I do. The clicks are nice, but variety is the spice of life.”

    Seriously you could have stopped before this article IF you really wanted to. But as you said the clicks are nice and easy, so might as well milk it for all you can. You really should be thanking VW for all those clicks rather than being angry at them.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    You guys whine about Tesla’s elimination of their PR department, while gullibly drinking the poison from VW’s.

  • avatar

    Perhaps it is inevitable that some journalists mislead/misinform/jump the shark due to the incidence of being lied to by those they cover – big business, politicians, pharmaceutical companies, vehicle manufacturers, leaders, followers and your grandma. The influence is largely unavoidable.

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    Interesting that even Peter DeLorenzo at “autoextremist.com” fell for it, basing his entire weekly rant on this, then having to add a correction half-again as long as the column itself for the mea culpa!

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Ryoku75: @APaGttH If theres one comment worth reading in this list, its this one, and maybe the random WWII argument.
  • FreedMike: “And the liberal media refuses to broach this topic.” Wrong. It took me about six seconds to...
  • 28-Cars-Later: “And the liberal media refuses to broach this topic.” This is extremely concerning.
  • jmo: “Meanwhile, national suicide rates… have been similarly elevated” The suicide rate dropped...
  • FreedMike: I look at Subaru the same way I look at “Grey’s Anatomy.” Successful show? Yes. Well...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber