The elaborate prank was the work of the Clean Clothes Campaign, which wanted to put pressure on Adidas to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement, and activist group The Yes Men, which is known for creating spoof campaigns to draw attention to corporations and raise concerns on social issues.
An Adidas spokesperson confirmed the incident took place. Speaking to PRWeek, they said they "reject the allegations" made by the Clean Clothes Campaign.
“The disposable income of workers in our supplier factories is generally significantly higher than the respective statutory minimum wage.
“A team of around 50 experts around the world work in supplier countries every day to ensure our workplace standards are applied and met," said the spokesperson.
“In 2021, Adidas conducted more than 1,200 factory audits of suppliers. If our standards are breached, we have a sanction mechanism in place that can even lead to the termination of the business relationship,” they added.
The spokesperson also said: “For more than 25 years, Adidas has taken a variety of measures to ensure fair and safe working conditions for workers in its supply chain. The Adidas Workplace Standards commit our suppliers to progressively increase worker compensation and living standards through continuous development of compensation systems, benefits, social programs and other services.”
PRWeek understands at least one website published, and later unpublished, one of the fake press releases believing it to be from Adidas.
As part of the campaign, The Yes Men sent out three press releases using their own software, each from a “different Adidas-looking domain”, and held a spoof fashion event in the city of Berlin.
The first release claimed Adidas had hired a former Cambodian garment worker as its new co-chief executive.
It announced a “revolutionary plan to overhaul the company” supposedly approved by the brand’s board and new managing director Björn Gulden.
The false statement described Adidas’ “new initiative” as “the most ambitious social and environmental responsibility plan ever undertaken by a major brand”.
Adidas had purportedly signed the Pay Your Workers agreement, and agreed to “ensure all workers receive the full wages and severance owed to them since the pandemic began” and to “establish a severance guarantee fund to cover all textile, garment, shoe and leather workers in Adidas’ global supply chain.”
The release said the German sportswear brand would be “making an immediate payment of €11.2m in wages to Cambodian workers.”
Furthermore, it claimed Adidas would take steps to ensure all workers, union members and leaders who were fired from Trax Apparel in Cambodia and the Pou Chen factory in Myanmar were “reinstated with full back pay, and that their demands for better working conditions, higher wages and respect for their rights are met unequivocally”.
The second fake press release promoted the “Realitywear” clothing and shoes line, which supposedly featured contributions from celebrities such as Bad Bunny, Pharrell Williams and Phillip Leyesa, and was described as upcycled clothing “worn non-stop for six months by Cambodian workers”.
The final release appeared to be a rebuttal from the brand, but Adidas was once again the victim of a hoax.
“Clean Clothes Campaign have been calling on Adidas to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement for months but the brand has still refused to take the steps necessary to protect workers’ rights,” said Ilana Winterstein from Clean Clothes Campaign.
Commenting on the press releases, she told PRWeek: “There were two distinct parts to the hoax – the first was presenting a utopian vision of Adidas’ leadership, one where workers’ voices are centred and workers' rights are prioritised.
“The second part was the unveiling of the brutal current reality, which Adidas likes to keep hidden, which shone a literal spotlight on the exploitation that underpins Adidas’ profits,” Winterstein added.
She said the Clean Clothes Campaign was “interested in what Adidas’ response will be” and that they “sincerely hope that the public pressure and media scrutiny will push them to take the next step needed and to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement”.
Winterstein described the response from the public and press as “overwhelmingly positive and supportive”.
When asked by PRWeek whether the Clean Clothes Campaign had plans to target other brands, or if it was concerned about legal action, Winterstein said: “In terms of legal action, the violations against human rights and the cases highlighted are all real.
“We want all brands to sign the binding Pay Your Workers agreement, so we can’t rule anything out in the future.”
Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men said: “We have taken part in this action to try to get Adidas to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement of the Clean Clothes Campaign.
“As for legal action, I am quite concerned that Adidas is legally exposed by not paying their workers.
“We do plan to target other brands and businesses but only if they deserve it!”
It’s not the first time a major corporation has been targeted by a fake press release.
In 2016, French construction firm Vinci was the subject of a hoax release, which said its CFO had been sacked and that it would be restating its financial statements for the previous year and the first half of the then-current year. Shares in the firm dropped as a result of the hoax.