The Power of Lottery Advertising

A lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay money for a ticket, then win prizes if the numbers on their ticket match those randomly chosen by machines. It is one of the oldest forms of gambling, and has a long history. Lottery games have been used for centuries to settle disputes, determine fates, and award governmental goods. In the United States, state governments conduct lotteries and a federal government regulates interstate lotteries.

Most people who play the lottery are not compulsive gamblers. Rather, they are making a low-risk investment in a fantasy, a brief moment of thinking “What would I do if I won the lottery?” They contribute billions to government receipts that could otherwise go to education, infrastructure, or social services. Yet, they also forgo saving for their own retirement or college tuition.

Despite these drawbacks, the lottery enjoys broad public approval. In fact, state lottery revenues have been shown to be a powerful instrument for raising revenue without increasing taxes and reducing spending on existing programs. And lottery proceeds have been used to support everything from subsidized housing units to kindergarten placements.

The popularity of the lottery is due in part to the way that it is sold: as an investment with a very low risk, a ticket purchased for $1 can potentially yield millions in prizes. This makes it an appealing alternative to more traditional investments such as stocks or mutual funds.

In addition, lottery advertising is coded with messages that appeal to the human desire to win and to make a big score. For example, a woman who won the Mega Millions in 2016 claimed that she had chosen her winning numbers by using family birthdays and the number seven, which are often thought to be lucky.

Another factor is that lottery marketing is very effective at reaching the right demographic. In the United States, the majority of lottery players are high-school educated middle-aged men. Lottery advertising is heavily targeted to these groups, and their enthusiasm for the game is a source of concern.

Many state lotteries are run as a business, with a clear focus on maximizing revenues. As such, their advertising campaigns target specific constituencies: convenience store operators (who buy the tickets and promote them); lottery suppliers (who make heavy contributions to state political candidates); teachers (in states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); state legislators, etc. As a result, the overall public interest in the lottery is frequently overlooked. Moreover, as the industry evolves, state authorities often make policy decisions piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. As a consequence, few, if any, have a coherent gambling policy or lottery policy.