The Pros and Cons of Lottery Advertising


A lottery is a form of gambling in which tokens are sold and the winnings (often cash) are determined by a random drawing. Lotteries have gained popular favor in many countries, with some governments outlawing them and others encouraging their growth. However, they also present a number of serious problems for society. These range from the possibility of compulsive gambling to the regressive nature of ticket prices, and from the question of whether a state has the right or even the responsibility to promote such games.

The first recorded lotteries in the Low Countries in the 15th century offered tickets for town fortifications and other purposes, but their popularity increased with innovations that transformed them into more modern forms of gambling, with players buying a chance to win money through a random drawing. Modern state lotteries are run as government-owned businesses, with the primary goal of increasing revenues and retaining public support. The revenue-focused model has led to a constant churn of new games, largely in the form of scratch-off tickets. These often feature a small prize amount, in the 10s or 100s of dollars, and relatively high odds of winning—in the 1 in 4 range.

Lottery advertising typically promotes the jackpot size, with large sums of money grabbing attention on newscasts and online sites. This strategy is designed to attract new customers, but the resulting popularity also tends to overstate the jackpot’s actual value, which will decline dramatically over time due to inflation and taxes.

Moreover, it’s common for lottery advertisements to claim that the proceeds are earmarked for some specific public purpose, such as education. This message is especially effective in times of economic stress, when states seek to fend off budget cuts and tax increases. But studies show that lotteries have a broad base of support, and are often popular even when the state’s overall financial situation is sound.

While some people play the lottery simply because they enjoy gambling, there’s a deeper psychological appeal: People feel like they’re playing for their last, best, or only shot at getting out of a tough situation. Lottery ads capitalize on this feeling by luring in the poor and working class with promises of instant riches.

Lottery critics also argue that the industry is prone to deceptive practices, including using misleading information about winning odds, inflating the value of the money won (most state lottery prizes are paid in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value), and generally misrepresenting the costs and benefits of lottery gambling. However, most of these arguments are not based on research or statistics. Rather, they are a result of the fact that lotteries are business-oriented and promote gambling in ways that contradict the goals of most democratic societies. For example, lottery revenues are heavily concentrated in middle-income neighborhoods and disproportionately less in lower-income areas. Moreover, the vast majority of the money raised by state lotteries is spent on advertising and commissions, not on education or other programs for which they are supposedly intended.