Accessing the Munchie Mainframe

Why the foolish idea of hacking vending machines remains so appealing.

Photo illustration: a vending machine with code superimposed and the Nosh logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.

For proof that a heist needn’t involve jewels, paintings, or bank vaults to qualify among history’s greatest, look no further than the CIA contractors who hacked into agency vending machines and stole $3,314.40 worth of snacks over a period in 2012 and 2013. When their handiwork was revealed last year in a declassified report, the contractors were hailed as folk heroes, in no small part because they did something we’ve all, in our heart of hearts, dreamed of doing: They scammed their way into a regular supply of free snacks, and for a little while, they got away with it.

I have a theory that most people have a kind of affection for vending machines, or at least a strange fascination with them. Maybe it’s a holdover from childhood, when the things you love most are candy, pushing buttons, and getting to do “adult stuff” like handle money: Vending machines neatly encompass all three. This theory is based on my own experience—I happen to think it is very weird and cool that just about everywhere you go, you can buy snacks and soda from a low-key robot if you can scrape together a dollar—but also what I observed when one of my colleagues brought her kids in for a recent Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. “Mom, you could buy us food from the vending machine,” one of them half-suggested, half-guilt-tripped his mother. Even though they’d probably already eaten, even though there were other free foods in the office, what they wanted most was to feed dollar bills to a machine twice their size and be able to select their very own snacks via buttons. Can you blame them?

As much as we love vending machines, we don’t love them enough to not steal from them. After all, who’s going to miss that Snickers just chilling behind a thin pane of plastic in a random parking lot anyway? This explains why the CIA plot—a scheme involving an electronic payment system called FreedomPay—captured our collective imagination, and also why the internet is littered with lower-fi instructions for vending machine hacking.

If the idea of “hacking” a vending machine calls to mind the image of, say, Ryan Lochte or some other muscled oaf shaking a machine real hard, know that in this context hacking, aside from the rare try-attaching-a-string-to-your-dollar-so-you-can-take-it-back trick, mostly refers to a series of codes passed down through urban legend that will supposedly allow you to access the machine’s hallowed internal menu. An ancient Yahoo Answers thread inquires about the efficacy of using the code 4-3-2-1-1-2-3-1-1 to get to a soda machine’s menu—a series of numbers that, if you spend enough time Googling how to hack a vending machine, you will soon learn apply to the Classic Coke Machine. The idea is that this code will get you into the machine’s menu, where you can reset the prices to free. Similar codes are scattered like Nature Valley bar crumbs all over the internet, from long-abandoned message-board threads and posts on Quora and Reddit to an oddly imprecise WikiHow entry. (“Experiment with different buttons to see various information.” Gee, thanks!)

The conventional wisdom on these hacks is that they don’t work, though perhaps older machines were susceptible. However, people in the vending machine industry are loath to so much as confirm the existence of such codes, lest it would do anything to encourage a culture of vending machine abuse. The National Automatic Merchandising Association declined to speak to me for this story, and Chris Bracher, Quora’s most prolific contributor on the subject of vending machines, told me, “No, the ‘hacks’ don’t work unless they involve counterfeiting, vandalism, or damaging the machines. Enough people abuse vending machines as it is, we really don’t need yet another article inspiring people to try it out or check for themselves to see if any of urban legends are true.”

But the hacks have persisted online and even found new life on social platforms like YouTube. Videos with titles like “Top 5 Vending Machine Hacks to Get FREE Drinks and Snacks (WORKS EVERYTIME 2017)” rack up hundreds of thousands of views, even when they are poorly strung-together compilations of other videos, and they most certainly do not work every time. Some videos announce that they are “for educational purposes only” at the beginning as a responsibility dodge, before gleefully segueing to clips of young people giggling over cellphone-shot footage of successful, or at least successfully faked, heists. Some vending machine hacking videos even have their own debunking videos. In a parody of the genre, a video called “How to Hack a Vending Machine” from a channel called HowToBasic starts off looking like the other instructional videos before devolving into footage of a machine being smashed and destroyed. That’s certainly one way to override the system.

In addition to the shady aggregated style of videos, there are videos where vloggers promise to give out the codes or try hacking themselves in their videos … and then proceed to wait until the very end of their excruciating vlogs to get to the goods. Witness one video, with the search engine optimization–friendly title “TRICK ANY VENDING MACHINES TO GIVE YOU FREE MONEY,” where a vlogger named David Vlas spends the first 11 of 13 minutes doing things like visiting a skate park and going to a car wash, before finally making his way to some hotel vending machines. For Vlas and his ilk, hacking a vending machine is just content, a stunt they can film and put up on their channel.

Even though I was pretty doubtful that they would work, in the interest of journalism I felt compelled to try my hand at vending machine hacking. I wrote down a bunch of codes cribbed from YouTube and took them over to the vending machines that live in Slate’s Brooklyn office. I can confirm that one never worries quite so much about looking like an alien attempting to contact her home planet than while typing a “code” that consists of “Dr Pepper–Poland Spring–Coke–Diet Coke–Diet Coke–Coke–Poland Spring–Diet Coke–Diet Coke” (aka 4-3-2-1-1-2-3-1-1) into a vending machine in a room full of one’s co-workers.

I tried a half-dozen or so codes, and for the most part, nothing happened. When I tried the code 4-2-3-1, I got a momentarily promising response—it seemed to cause the display to change, though not to an option I could then manipulate for free drinks, just to some incomprehensible numbers. At this point I made my way back to my seat, resigned to continuing to pay for soda for the rest of my life. But later that afternoon came an officewide message: “I don’t know if someone forgot a Coke Zero in the soda machine or if the soda machine gave me two Coke Zeros, but if anyone wants a Coke Zero there’s one up for grabs on the table next to my desk.” Could it be? Maybe I did hack my way to a free soda. Or maybe the elves that live inside our machine decided to throw me a bone. Either way, it just proves what I’ve always thought: Vending machines are a little bit magic.

Read more from Nosh here.