The Problems With Lottery Advertising


A lottery is a scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance. Prizes may be money, goods, services, or even real estate. Those who wish to participate in the lottery must pay a fee and then hope that their ticket will be drawn. While the practice of casting lots for decision-making and determining fates has a long history, the modern lottery is relatively recent. Its roots are in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

Lottery advertising focuses on the big prize, ignoring the fact that most players don’t win. It also obscures the regressivity of the games by making them seem like fun and wacky.

In reality, a large proportion of people play the lottery because they just plain old like gambling. They enjoy the thrill of buying a ticket, and they don’t think too much about the fact that the odds are long against them. Lottery advertising sends a mixed message, but the main one is that playing the lottery is okay and even a good thing because it helps the state.

This arrangement, which was popular in the immediate post-World War II period, allowed states to expand their array of social safety nets without raising especially burdensome taxes on the middle class and working class. But the growth of lotteries has now reached a plateau. As a result, discussion and criticism has begun to focus on specific aspects of their operations, including the impact on lower-income groups and the alleged prevalence of compulsive gambling.

The biggest issue with lotteries is that they run at cross-purposes to the public interest. Most of the money outside winnings ends up back with the participating states, and they have complete control over how to spend it. Some of it goes toward enhancing infrastructure, and a portion of it is often spent on programs that support problem gamblers or gambling addiction recovery.

But the vast majority of the funding goes to advertising and promotional campaigns, which are explicitly designed to encourage people to spend money on the games. This amounts to a major promotion of gambling, and it can’t be justified on the grounds that it raises revenue for the state. It does that, but it also encourages the proliferation of dangerous games that are a particular danger to young children. In addition, the ads promote a false idea that winning the lottery is an easy way to become rich and famous, which can lead to impulsive spending, bad financial decisions, and even gambling addiction. This is not the kind of thing that states should be encouraging. We’d do better to fund infrastructure and education than to encourage people to take a risk for the sake of a few extra dollars.