How VW’s Polarizing ‘Voltzwagen’ Prank Went Over with Everyday Consumers

Ad Age-Harris Poll shows VW did not help itself, but it did not hurt itself, either

By E.J. Schultz | Ad Age | April 6, 2021

Despite a wave of negative headlines about its April Fools’ Day prank, Volkswagen is not any worse off with everyday consumers—but the automaker also did not help itself by pretending to rename itself “Voltswagen,” according to a new poll.

Fifty-nine percent of consumers who were aware of the stunt said it did not change their opinion of the brand, according to the Ad Age-Harris Poll. Just 20% think better of VW, while 21% said they now hold a worse opinion of the brand.

The poll was conducted April 2-5 among 1,125 U.S. adults ages 18 and older.

While brands have been pulling April Fools’ Day stunts for years, VW’s joke was more elaborate than most. The campaign, which was handled by Johannes Leonardo, played out over several days and was notable for the involvement of top-level VW execs who were quoted in press releases and used their own social media handles to push the notion that the storied auto brand would rebrand itself “Voltswagen” in the U.S. to push its electric vehicle ambitions.

Several mainstream media outlets, including USA Today, Associated Press and CNBC, reported the name change as fact after being assured by sources inside the automaker that it was not a joke. When it was revealed to be untrue, some of these same outlets ran stories that questioned the automaker’s credibility, while conjuring the automaker’s 2015 emissions scandal in which it was caught cheating to evade regulations.

“The use of deceit is really dangerous. If you’re Volkswagen, it’s doubly dangerous,” Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor, told USA Today. “Volkswagen is the last company that should be playing around with deceiving people, even if it’s for two days. It doesn’t play well when you have admitted guilt to having tricked us before.”

But the saga went unnoticed by a majority of consumers, according to the poll, which found that only 21% of consumers had heard about the “Voltswagen” announcement by the time they were polled. Of those who heard of the news, 73% said they were aware that it was an April Fools’ joke (perhaps because the poll was conducted after reports came out that it was a stunt).

The goal of the prank was to raise awareness of VW’s electric vehicle ambitions, which include the ID.4, a compact electric crossover that the automaker is marketing as “the electric car for the people.”

The poll found that 19% of respondents were more likely to buy a VW after learning of the prank, but 69% said it had no impact on their decision. Only 12% stated that it would make them less likely to buy a VW.

The poll reveals a division on whether brands of any kind should participate in April Fools’ Day pranks: 54% said they should not, while 46% said they should. For those who said yes, the most commonly cited reason was “it’s a creative way for brands to advertise.” The naysayers said the pranks “create confusion for customers.”

But younger people are apparently more into the jokes—64% of millennials and 61% of Gen Zers say brands should partake in April Fools’ Day, but only 38% of Gen Xers and 35% of baby boomers agree.

“Holiday promotions can be a powerful and effective tool for brands to engage with customers and build buzz, but not all holidays are created equally,” states Will Johnson, CEO of The Harris Poll. “April Fools’ Day is polarizing because it gets at the heart of the brand-customer relationship—trust. As our research shows, consumers are divided on April Fools’ Day marketing stunts, so brands must carefully weigh the benefits against the risks.”

Read the full story at Ad Age.