Lottery Marketing and Its Ugly Underbelly

Historically, lotteries have been used for public and private purposes, from municipal repairs to the foundation of universities. The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fate has a long history in the human world, including several references in the Bible. Modern lotteries generally take the form of a game in which people buy numbered tickets or receipts for the chance to win a prize, often money, by matching those numbers in a drawing or other random selection process. Each bettor writes his name and the amount he stakes on a ticket or receipt, which is then sifted through for possible inclusion in a drawing or other allocation process.

State-sponsored lotteries have won broad popular support, especially during periods of economic stress when they are promoted as a means to avoid tax increases or cuts in government spending. But research suggests that the popularity of lotteries is independent of the actual fiscal condition of the states that sponsor them. And many of the same factors that drive lotteries’ appeal also undermine them:

A big draw is the super-sized jackpot, which is bolstered by advertising that deliberately emphasizes the size of the prize. That strategy arguably runs at cross-purposes with the goals of state governments, which are charged with promoting responsible gambling, and in particular, limiting its effects on poorer citizens, problem gamblers and the young. But lottery marketing has another ugly underbelly: the implication that winning the lottery, however improbable, is a person’s only hope of getting ahead.