Lottery Advertising


Lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay to participate and, after the ticket is purchased, are given the chance to win prizes such as cash, goods, or services. The prize amounts vary according to the rules of the specific lottery being played, and there are many different kinds of lottery games. Some state governments operate their own lotteries while others sell tickets for national lotteries such as Powerball or Mega Millions. Regardless of their exact structure, all lottery games share some common features. The most obvious is the reliance on chance. People choose to play the lottery because they believe that luck is a factor in their life, and that by buying a ticket they can change their lives for the better.

The practice of distributing property or goods by lottery is ancient. The Old Testament contains instructions for Moses to take a census of the Hebrews and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and other goods during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were brought to America by British colonists and became popular in the early colonies despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

In the early years of American history, state-sponsored lotteries were common and helped finance the European settlement of the continent. They also supported public works projects such as paving streets and building wharves, and were used to fund colleges including Harvard and Yale. George Washington even ran a lottery in 1768 to raise money for a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains, but that project was unsuccessful.

The modern state lottery is a wildly profitable industry for states. In fact, it is the second-largest source of revenue for the American government, after federal grants. State governments run the lottery as a business, and this means that they are always seeking to increase revenues by selling more tickets. Because of the large sums involved, this often requires a heavy promotional effort, especially through advertising.

Lottery advertising typically focuses on two messages primarily. One is that playing the lottery is fun, and the other is that people are helping their community if they buy a ticket. The former message obscures the regressivity of the lottery by making it appear to be a benign activity that can be enjoyed by all, and the latter confuses the true motivation for most people to buy tickets—the desire to become rich quickly.

Moreover, it obscures the fact that the lottery is an inherently risky activity for most people, and that it is highly unequal. People with the lowest incomes are more likely to play, and lottery play declines with age and education levels. In an era where states are struggling financially, and in which anti-tax sentiment is rising, the lottery seems to be at cross-purposes with the broader public interest. If the state is going to promote this form of gambling, it should be at least honest about the costs and benefits. And that should include the fact that gambling is not a benign activity for the poor or problem gamblers.