The Dark Side of Lottery Advertising


The lottery is a popular way to raise money for many different purposes, but it also has a darker side. While it’s true that many people play for pure fun, there are some who believe that winning the lottery will change their lives for the better. However, it’s important to understand that the odds of winning are extremely low and you should only play for the right reasons.

The word lotteries derives from the Middle Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “choice,” and refers to a game of chance in which prizes are awarded to holders of numbers drawn at random. The practice of making decisions and determining fates by drawing lots has a long history (including several instances in the Bible). The modern state lottery is an example of a form of gambling in which prizes are publicly distributed for a particular purpose, such as repairing municipal streets or distributing assistance to the poor.

When a state adopts a lottery, it typically legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public corporation to run it; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to a constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the lottery’s offering of games. This expansion is often accompanied by an increasing emphasis on promotional efforts, including advertising.

Historically, lottery advertising has emphasized the idea that there is no skill involved in playing the lottery; if you choose to buy a ticket, all you need to do is hope that your number will be picked. But, in reality, the chances of your number being chosen are exactly the same as any other number’s. In fact, some numbers appear to come up more frequently than others, but that’s a function of pure random chance and has nothing to do with how much you play.

In addition, many critics argue that lottery advertising is deceptive, misrepresenting the odds of winning; exaggerating the size of jackpot prizes; inflating the value of winning tickets (which are generally paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value); and otherwise misleading the public. They also charge that the state’s promotion of the lottery is at cross-purposes with its obligation to promote the general welfare and prevent the exploitation of vulnerable persons.

Regardless of the specific issues, all states’ lotteries share a common evolution. After a state adopts a lottery, the debate shifts from the general desirability of a lottery to more specific features of its operation, such as its impact on compulsive gamblers or its regressive effects on lower-income populations. This ongoing evolution of lottery policy is a classic case in which the goals of private businesses drive public-policy decisions. Consequently, many state officials find themselves in a situation in which they must balance the demands of private business with the obligations of the public they serve. The result is a system of government that is highly dependent on revenue from a single source, but is largely insulated from external scrutiny.