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What A Shocker — 'Voltswagen' Sparks Scorn With Stunt That Duped So Many, It Hertz

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's not April Fools' Day yet, but the pranks started early this year. Yesterday, Volkswagen announced it was changing its name in the U.S. to Voltswagen - V-O-L-T, like electricity. The corporate press release turned out to be fake, but it had a real effect on headlines and stock markets, as NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The name change was just a marketing stunt for the electric SUV, the ID.4. Volkswagen of America was evidently surprised by the media response. Mark Gillies is the senior manager of product communications.

MARK GILLIES: I don't think we expected them to take it as seriously as they did. I mean, one of the things we didn't do is we didn't trademark the name, for instance. So that was probably a pretty good clue it wasn't happening.

DOMONOSKE: There weren't many other clues, no obvious jokes. The press release went out through official channels with all the trappings of a real effort to generate buzz around a new brand. Gillies says he apologizes to people in the media who feel duped. And full transparency, he was talking to someone in the media who was duped - me. He was talking to me.

GILLIES: It was, again, having fun with the brand and talking about, you know, the future.

DOMONOSKE: A lot of people didn't think it was fun. Dan Ives is a stock analyst with Wedbush.

DAN IVES: From a industry, from an investor, from a media perspective, you know, many got fooled, including ourselves. And I think it's one where it leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

DOMONOSKE: Companies release silly April Fools' announcements all the time, but Ives says he's never seen an April Fools' joke have this kind of response. Investors believed it. Volkswagen's stock prices went up.

IVES: Twenty-one years in the Street, this is definitely a first. And I think ultimately, it's going to potentially have some ramifications.

DOMONOSKE: Lost trust, for one thing - this is a company still recovering from the Dieselgate scandal. They paid billions of dollars for lying about emissions. As for whether regulators will be interested in this false statement moving stock markets, the Securities and Exchange Commission declined to comment. And did it even work as a marketing stunt? Jessica Caldwell is the executive director of insights for the automotive data site Edmunds.

JESSICA CALDWELL: I didn't see a lot of, like, let me check out the ID.4 because I feel like that product name was not necessarily attached to the message. So, you know, I'm not really sure if it was as successful as Volkswagen envisioned it to be. You know, it definitely backfired.

DOMONOSKE: And she's still kind of salty that this April Fools' joke dropped on March 30.

CALDWELL: You can't do a New Year's Eve countdown on December 28. You don't just get to pick the days you want to celebrate these holidays.

DOMONOSKE: Timing aside, one reason why this seemed plausible is because there is a huge shift happening in the auto industry. Two weeks ago, Volkswagen Group's CEO, Herbert Diess, described the plan to go electric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERBERT DIESS: Our transformation will be fast. It will be unprecedented. The transformation will be bigger than anything the industry has seen in the past century.

DOMONOSKE: So while a name change would have been drastic, it would fit with that kind of transformation. And it's not just VW. The entire auto industry is gearing up for a massive shift toward battery-powered vehicles. And unlike the name Voltswagen, that change is not a joke.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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