If a device that turns water into wine in three days sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
Two weeks ago, we wrote about Philip James' new startup, The Miracle Machine. James co-founded Lot18, a wine sale company, and we were interested in his next venture.
The Miracle Machine, James said, was a kitchen appliance that could turn water into wine with a few extra ingredients and recipes on a mobile app. Business Insider wrote one of — if not the first — articles on The Miracle Machine. Ultimately, 600 publications wrote about James' device and the articles were read 500 million times.
The Miracle Machine was a hoax and we were duped. Here's why we fell for James' prank.
The Miracle Machine
In late February, I met a former Lot 18 employee for lunch. We discussed James; he left the company late last year and now, this person said, he was working on a new startup.
Lot18 was a wine sale site that raised more than $30 million before shuttering products and laying off most of its staff. The new startup was being circulated in an email chain among other former Lot18ers and it was called "The Miracle Machine."
I checked out the website and it looked legitimate. It listed James and a fellow Lot18 executive, Kevin Boyer, as the product's founders. They even made a video showcasing the product and came up with a founding story.
Lot18 was one of the first New York startups I reported on at Business Insider. I covered all of its highs and lows. I haven't always written nice things about James' company, but there has always been a mutual respect between James and I. Or so I thought.
I emailed James o n February 28 about Miracle Machine:
"I stumbled across your new startup, the wine maker. I was thinking about writing up your new venture. Any interest in chatting about it? It's good to see you're still in the same startup space."
The next day I started drafting a post on Miracle Machine with the information I had on hand. I hoped James would respond and explain the project but if he didn't, I could state what I'd heard second-hand and point readers to the website, which was live.
Soon, James wrote me back:
"I want to wait until we get it launched on kickstarter first - that should be very soon. Next week I hope, until then we're in a bit of a holding pattern."
James had confirmed the project's existance and I didn't want to wait until the rest of the world knew about it. I asked if he'd mind me tweaking my post and writing about the startup sooner.
" I was literally just about to post an article about it! Great timing on the email....If you don't mind, I'd like to go ahead and post a story about what you're up to and then when you're ready for launch I'd love to chat with you and see a demo (or even past failed experiments with the device)."
James wrote back and said "OK."
Given the conversation and my past working relationship with James, I edited the story and felt fine hitting publish.
If it works, will be bigger than the Soda Stream—Lot18 Founder Invents Tiny Device That Turns Water to Wine In 3 Days http://t.co/VGw2HsZpty— Alyson Shontell (@ajs) March 1, 2014
A few days later, James sent me another email.
"Wow. You set off an avalanche of press. Was not expecting that!"
Today, I received another email from James.
"I think this will make you smile," he typed and attached a press release announcing the hoax.
I was furious and called James. He apologized for not telling me the truth and said he lied because of an non-disclosure agreement he had signed with a PR agency. The hoax, he explained, was for a charity called "Wine to Water." To drum up press for it, James says a global PR director, Scott Beaudoin of MSL, decided to dupe the media.
"I'm sorry you're upset," James told me when I called him. "But I think the tradeoff was worth it."
To the people I helped dupe by being duped myself, I'm sorry. I made a big mistake.
Here's the press release announcing the hoax, and my regrettable part in it.
TRUE PURPOSE OF INTERNET SENSATION ‘THE MIRACLE MACHINE’ REVEALED
Faux machine turns spotlight onto Wine to Water, a charity tackling the global water and sanitation crisis
(NEW YORK, NY – March, 12 2014) Internet sensation the “Miracle Machine”, the first affordable wine making device for the home, is not a real device – it is just a piece of wood. The fictitious miracle, fronted by wine entrepreneurs Kevin Boyer and Philip James of CustomVine, has generated extensive media coverage around the world since its unveiling nearly two weeks ago. The disruptive program concept was initiated as a pro-bono campaign to support not-for-profit ‘ Wine to Water’ , an organization that provides people around the world with access to clean water, one of life’s basic necessities.
In just under two weeks, the Miracle Machine went viral with over 500 million media impressions as more than 200,000 people watched the Miracle Machine video, nearly 600 media outlets around the world covered the story, 6,000 people tweeted about it, and 7,000 people signed up for a potential crowd-funding platform to invest in the faux machine.
The water crisis and poor sanitation affects more than 2.5 billion people around the world, with women and children suffering the most. Shockingly, one child dies every 22 seconds. To date, Wine to Water has provided more than 250,000 people in 17 countries with access to clean drinking water.
“Almost two million children die each year from contaminated water and poor sanitation,” said James. “The miracle of turning water to wine might remain out of reach, but Wine to Water has shown that the real miracle of providing clean water is easily within our grasp,” he added. “The decision to put our wine credentials on the line and get involved was an easy one,” said Boyer. “While many of us like to enjoy a fine glass of wine, too many people around the world cannot enjoy a clean glass of water, and that’s unacceptable,” he added.
For one dollar, Wine to Water can provide clean water for one person for an entire year. Using a variety of water filters and wells, Wine to Water is changing lives at a fraction of the $499 price tag for the faux machine that so many were willing to buy or invest in. “For the cost of a bottle of fine wine, we provide a way to produce 99.9% pure drinking water to a family for up to five years and THAT is the true miracle. There is no life without water,” says Doc Hendley, the founder of Wine to Water.
“The Wine community has been a long-term supporter of Wine to Water by sponsoring an array of wine tasting events with the proceeds being donated to those in need,” says Boyer. “We cannot express how grateful we are for the attention our industry has given The Miracle Machine. However, what we need to do now is shift that attention from the Miracle Machine to the clean water and sanitation cause and support Doc and his devoted team.”
In celebration of World Water Month and World Water Day on Saturday, March 22, Wine to Water is asking Miracle Machine enthusiasts to turn wine into water and save lives by purchasing a commemorative bottle of ‘Miracle Machine’ Wine that CustomVine has created exclusively for Winetowater.org . Supporters can also take immediate action and make a quick and simple donation by texting "MIRACLE" to 27722 (United States residents only).
Please visit www.themiraclemachine.net or www.WinetoWater.org to purchase your own Wine to Water Miracle Wine , make a donation or to be a part of the movement.
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