Miracle Machine: a 500-million view hoax

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Such is the case with the so-called “Miracle Machine,” a $499 countertop appliance that claimed to make water into wine in three days. The story had legs and ran away faster than Usain Bolt since it was picked up by a huge number of media outlets: According to one account, 600 publications wrote about the machine and the articles were read 500 million times. Philip James was the public face of the project; previously, he headed Snooth and then Lot18, where he raised over $40 million from investors before closing various product lines, having staff reductions, and, ultimately, stepping down.

Now, James has admitted the project is a hoax. In a video on winetowater.org, he and Kevin Boyer have admitted that the machine does not really exist, calling it “just a lump of wood.” They did the stunt to raise awareness the non-profit Wine to Water that seeks to bring clean water to the developing world. NPR’s The Salt blog says it was cooked up by MSL Group, a PR company.

philip_james_wineUgh, talk about leaving a bad taste in your mouth. While the cause is laudable and the organization may well be too, the cynical stunt has a sleazy bait-and-switch feel that is more likely to turn off the spigots of donations rather than open the taps.

A “senior reporter” at Business Insider has put up a post detailing how she came to publish the initial story about the device. While she was aggressive in pursuing the story, Philip James asked her to hold off until he got his Kickstarter campaign under way. Was this just a ruse to make it seem more like a real project? If not, what would James have done with that money? Apparently 7,000 people signed up for information about a Kickstarter campaign.

Blech. Oh, and you can “donate” by buying wine from Philip James’ newest startup.

Related: “There Is No Machine That Turns Water Into Wine In 3 Days — Here’s Why I Was Duped” [BI]

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15 Responses to “Miracle Machine: a 500-million view hoax”

  1. This is awesome. Great story about the media, and kudos to the charity for a very postmodern media campaign.

  2. I forget. Does postmodern mean a material drop-off in donations because of a sleazy and cynical hoax? Or does it mean forgotten as quickly as it arrived?

  3. “Aggressive in pursuing the story”?? She says in her article that she looked at the website and it looked legitimate, watched the video (which is a joke in itself), and then sent him a three sentence email asking if she could publish the story. She clearly not only doesn’t understand the winemaking process, but was just so desperate for a scoop that she did no research whatsoever.

  4. […] Colman contends that the Miracle Machine hoax from Philip James is a “cynical stunt [that] has a sleazy […]

  5. Yep, definitely fell for this. Now at least I don’t have be battling feelings between apprehension that this wine machine would take over all authentic and good things about wine–and excitement that insta-wine was a possibility.

  6. Geez, this all has me pretty convinced that Lot 18 was just a hoax, too.

  7. @ Dan – okay, point taken…hasty.

    Blake has an excoriating post about the reporting and media on this story:


  8. @Michael: In this case, postmodern means attracting attention unconventionally, using humor and leveraging social media and a creative story to create mainstream media buzz. Cynical, really? You mean because they realized how uncritical broad swaths of the media are and called them on it? It was James’s hoax, not the charity’s — for them it was just great publicity. And I, for one, am a new donor!

  9. Well, first of all the hoax will be forgotten in a week… media outlets have no interest in saying another word and since nothing was ever created, there’s not much to remember – especially when there is so much real unicorn-class technology delivered every day. I *seriously* doubt this will be good for the charity… and certainly not anything compared to the human cost of this fraud.

    I just did the quick math and if you have 500 million views @ 15 secs/per @ $20/hr for people’s time, you get $43 million worth of human time wasted by this. If that’s not cynical, I don’t know what is. I guess it’s all very Robin Hood-y and you would probably have no problem if someone broke into your house and stole your stuff to pawn for a charity or perhaps their own consumption due to their poor economic position.

    In all honesty, if this were a one-off, then I wouldn’t be so irritated… what’s bothering me is that we’re seeing more and more of this and people are simply accepting it. It’s ok to lie at a massive scale and I’m just not ok with that.

  10. It’s the same thing with First Growth Bordeaux “futures”. Seriously, kids, do those bottles actually exist? Have you ever seen someone drinking one?

  11. “I *seriously* doubt this will be good for the charity… and certainly not anything compared to the human cost of this fraud.”

    Are you kidding? It’s a tiny charitable organisation. They’ve just made themselves known to millions across the world who had never heard of Wine to Water before this…of course this is good for them.

    It’s not fraud either – no money was invested. It’s just a very clever awareness campaign that worked ridiculously well!

  12. “It’s just a very clever awareness campaign that worked ridiculously well!”

    Clever because it preyed off uncommon stupidity and gullibility. How anyone, media or otherwise, could believe you could produce wine from water…wait a minute: didn’t someone else do that about 2000 years ago?

  13. @James, I’m not sure how you define fraud, but now every time I get an email from someone posing as a Nigerian prince – who actually just needs to feed his family – I’ll just consider that a very clever awareness campaign. This extracted value (time) from one party who were grossly misled by the other party. Fraud, false advertising, violation of CAN SPAM Act, whatever. Look, I don’t know where value-add marketing crosses into puffery and into deceit. But this clearly falls in the last category. Put another way, if they actually did a more narrow campaign on Kickstarter, raised $1m and then disappeared, that would be less egregious than what occurred.

    Whether this has a sustained positive, neutral or negative impact on the charity, I dunno. I guess we’ll find out with next year’s annual report. I do know that no one buys charity wine online no matter how much marketing support, so hopefully they’ll find another way to make money.

    Honestly, if this were the first hoax I’d seen, maybe I’d be grinning about how clever it was. But we’re seeing more and more of this (e.g., I actually fell for the hover board hoax a couple weeks ago) and people seem to be fine with it. My problem is that there is a social contract that underlies our shift to people-powered economy rather than one dominated by a relative handful of companies and media outlets. We’re already at the point where we have interpret every claim with a cynical eye. Now we have to question everything we see – is this even true? That creates so much friction and fucks up so many things that if it becomes commonplace then we’ll have no choice but to revert back to a model where we have fewer, but vetted, choices. So, yeah, I’m less bothered by those that did this and much more concerned about the acceptance of it as clever or at least acceptable.

    We’re on the brink of some pretty crazy technological changes to how money flows (e.g., http://startupboy.com/2014/03/09/the-bitcoin-model-for-crowdfunding/), but it relies on trust models that are at least in part dependent on social policing. If that don’t exist, then, well, none of this is going to happen in my lifetime and that would be a shame because the upside of this sort of human empowerment vastly outweighs a few greedy and unfair marketing campaigns.

  14. I just noticed that Philip James had been the head of Snooth. I saw him interviewed and he seemed like such a nice guy. However Snooth is my most hated wine website. It’s all bait and switch as far as giving information, reviews on wine. I don’t know if it has improved as I will never look at it again. Just interesting to find that he is involved in other questionable enterprises.

  15. When will people learn, there’s only one way to turn water into wine, and that’s by adding it to your must at harvest


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