DETROIT — Volkswagen of America issued false statements this week saying it would change its brand name to “Voltswagen,” as a way to stress its commitment to electric vehicles, only to reverse course Tuesday and admit that the supposed name change was just a joke.
Mark Gillies, a company spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that the statement had been a pre-April Fool’s Day joke after having insisted Monday that the release was legitimate and the name change accurate.
The company’s false statement was distributed again Tuesday, saying the brand-name change reflected VW’s switch to more battery-electric vehicles.
Volkswagen’s intentionally fake news release, highly unusual for a major public company, coincides with its efforts to repair its image as it tries to recover from a 2015 scandal in which it cheated on government emissions tests and allowed diesel-powered vehicles to illegally pollute the air.
In that scandal, Volkswagen admitted that about 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide were fitted with the deceptive software. The software reduced nitrogen oxide emissions when the cars were placed on a test machine but allowed higher emissions and improved engine performance during normal driving. The scandal cost Volkswagen $35 billion (30 billion euros) in fines and civil settlements and led to the recall of millions of vehicles.
The company’s fake news release, leaked on Monday and then repeated in a mass e-mail to reporters on Tuesday, resulted in articles about the name change in multiple media outlets, including The Associated Press.
The fake release could land Volkswagen in trouble with U.S. securities regulators because its stock price rose nearly 5% on Tuesday, the day that the bogus statement was officially issued.
James Cox, who teaches corporate and securities law at Duke University, said the Securities and Exchange Commission should take action to deal with such misinformation, which can distort stock prices.
“The whole market has gone crazy,” Cox said. “We need to throw a pretty clear line in the sand, I believe, about what is permissible and what isn’t permissible.”
This week’s Volkswagen incident bears some similarity to one in 2018 in which Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he had the funding secured to take the company private — a comment that drove up the stock price, Cox noted. Later, it was revealed that the funding had not been lined up. Musk and Tesla each agreed to pay $20 million in penalties to the SEC.