Problems With Lottery Advertising


In the United States, state lotteries are a popular source of public funds. They collect money from a group of people who pay to play a game in which the prize is awarded by random drawing. The money is used to pay for a variety of state services. Lotteries have many advantages, including the fact that they can raise large amounts of money for a state without imposing especially onerous taxes on the middle class or working classes. But they also have a number of disadvantages, including the fact that they are inherently addictive and can cause people to become dependent on them.

Until recently, most state lotteries were very similar. They started with a legal monopoly; established a state agency to run the lottery (rather than licensing a private firm in return for a portion of the proceeds); began operations with a small number of relatively simple games; and, because of constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expanded their offerings over time. But as revenues have leveled off and even declined, this expansion has begun to create problems for the lotteries themselves.

The problem is not that the state is not making enough money from the lottery, but rather that it is spending more than it is bringing in. This has primarily been a result of the fact that lottery jackpots often grow to apparently newsworthy levels, which draws in new customers and increases ticket sales. But these super-sized jackpots often cost the lottery a substantial amount in interest and other fees, which has to be offset by increased advertising expenditures.

This advertising, critics charge, is often deceptive; it presents misleading odds, inflates the value of winning the lottery, and entices people to spend more than they can afford to lose. It is also at cross-purposes with the public interest: the lottery promotes gambling, which is known to have negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers.

Lotteries are also promoting the idea that life is a lottery, that we are all going to get rich someday if only we buy a ticket or two. This is particularly dangerous, because it encourages an unhealthy dependence on chance to determine our fates and fuels irrational beliefs about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy tickets.

The fact is, however, that most lottery winners are not rich. In fact, the majority are middle-class or lower-income. And, because of the way the lottery is structured—as a continuous series of drawings that reward those who continue to participate and as the jackpot grows—it tends to draw participants from low-income neighborhoods. This has the potential to distort the social mobility of those who play, as well as harm their families. This is a serious concern that needs to be addressed. It cannot be solved by eliminating the lottery, but rather by limiting its scope and requiring that it be run fairly and transparently. Then it may be able to serve its important public purpose.