While giving my opinion last week on the Volkswagen April Fool’s Day scandal, I wrote that I hope it would be the last time I posted about it.
Cue Ron White voice: “I was wrong.”
Some of you won’t believe me, but the fact we did multiple posts wasn’t a cynical ploy for clicks — it was a quickly evolving story. One that led to three different news posts on separate aspects, two QOTDs based on two different versions of what we thought the story was, and my op-ed on it after the dust settled.
Like it or not, it was probably the week’s biggest story in the auto world, and I know some of you got tired of hearing about it, but it was news and our job to cover it. So I’m not apologizing for giving it a lot of spotlight.
That said, I thought we’d be done with it by Good Friday. But the story rose from the dead for one more go-round, thanks to Automotive News. How appropriate for the day after Easter.
It’s like a bad infomercial — “But wait, there’s more!”
The AN gang in Detroit has more on the story, but the short version is that what we thought we knew last week wasn’t exactly correct. We thought that VW had simply goofed by inadvertently leaking the press release on Monday and then doubled down on its assertion that the release was real in an effort to not spoil the gag. I even laid out this scenario for a VW spokesperson and he didn’t contradict it, though he didn’t confirm it, either.
Turns out that the real story, reported by Larry Vellequette, is more complicated than corporate ass-covering after an oopsie involve an itchy trigger finger and a content management system.
Here’s how it all went down. Johannes Leonardo, Volkwagen’s chief marketing agency, was behind the whole idea. Apparently, that “leak” of the press release on Monday, March 29 (the release was dated April 29) was intentional. It was put up on the VW media site for about an hour.
Let me hit you with a little inside baseball. Every automaker has a Web site for use by media — a site where we can access press releases, specs, images, contact info for PR teams, and more. Lots of reporters/bloggers/editors scan the sites for story ideas. Journalists can also subscribe to get press releases sent to their inboxes.
So when VW put the fake release up for an hour or so, there was a chance someone trawling for news might see it. Still, VW hedged its bets by using an anonymous Gmail account to send a link to the release to certain journalists who have a high profile on the automotive and/or business beats.
We didn’t get the email. Nor did we get an automated email with the release from the official VW media account. One person who did, however, was the news editor at Ad Age, a sister publication to Automotive News.
That same editor was about to interview VW of America’s marketing boss.
You see where this is going.
According to AN, VW spokesperson Mark Gillies assured inquiring reporters that the plan was real. Another version of the release — the one that I read — included a quote from VW of America CEO Scott Keogh that looked very real, at least to these jaded eyes.
The AN story then covers the well-trodden ground of VW’s diesel-scandal past and whether the prank was good marketing or not. It ends by pointing out that the ruse was believable because VW actually has tossed the idea of using the name “Voltswagen” around internally. Also, it wouldn’t need to change much in the way of badging, since it mostly just uses the two-letter VW badge on vehicles.
Keogh sounded a bit chastened in this quote from April 1 that ends the AN story: “When you light a match like this, in the environment, and it gets us, you know, as much traction as it did, you’re just not able to control everything — every phone call, every text, every email, every engagement, every back and forth,” he said. “But the idea came from a very Volkswagen place: Let’s have some fun. Let’s have a gag. Let’s show the world how crazy we are about EVs. Full stop.”
If they wanted publicity, they got it. We’re not immune from that, obviously.
That said, the furor is dying down slowly as time moves on. The news cycle moves fast, and we have Toyotas and Hummers to talk about now.
I was interested in reading the full story, and I think you will be, too. But soon enough, this story will move out of the news cycle and into the curriculum for marketing classes.
I just hope at least one text cites TTAC.
Update: Fast Company has additional reporting suggesting that VW’s global CMO used a LinkedIn post to further ruse.