The Dangers of Lottery Marketing


Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America, and it raises billions in revenue each year for state governments. But it is also a dangerous and exploitative form of gambling, one that relies on people being unwilling or unable to recognize the odds that they are facing, and that has been used to finance everything from prison breaks to the Vietnam War.

Lotteries are not just games of chance; they are a system of social control and a method of taxation. The term comes from the practice of casting lots to decide matters of chance or fate in ancient Rome and elsewhere, but it has been applied more broadly to any scheme involving a random allocation of goods or services.

A lottery is a system in which a prize or set of prizes is offered for the drawing of numbers or symbols at random, with the winners declared by an announcement in the media or public forum. Prizes may be cash or goods, services, or merchandise. Normally, a percentage of the proceeds goes to costs of organization and promotion, with the remainder available for the prizes or stakes.

The modern lottery is a form of state-sponsored gambling, whereby the proceeds are used to finance public projects, often education. While the concept of the lottery is not new, its popularity in the United States has exploded since World War II. It is a major source of revenue for state governments and has broad public approval, even in states with strong fiscal health.

While there are many different ways to organize a lottery, all share several common features: a state legislates a monopoly; establishes an independent agency or public corporation to administer the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the proceeds); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure to maintain or increase revenues, progressively expands the lottery in size and complexity by adding more games.

In addition to expanding the pool of possible winners, these innovations have made lottery games more attractive to potential bettors. For example, in some lotteries, the chance of winning a large prize is increased by offering rollover drawings, in which prizes are drawn from a pool that includes previously drawn tickets as well as new entries.

The most significant message that lottery marketers send is the notion that state government needs the money from the lottery and that it is, therefore, a good thing to play. But it is not clear how important the lottery’s contribution to state budgets is, especially in light of other sources of revenue.

A second major message is the idea that playing the lottery is a fun experience. While people do have a natural love for gambling, this message obscures the fact that lottery games are regressive and exploitative, and it sanitizes the way in which the very poor spend their discretionary income on tickets.