Problems With Lottery Advertising

A lottery is a game in which you pay for the chance to win something. The prize can be anything from money to a new car. If you buy a ticket and you are selected, then you have won. Some states have legalized and run lotteries, while others have not. Lotteries are a form of gambling and are regulated by law.

The word lottery is derived from the Latin verb lotere, meaning “to draw lots.” Historically, people have drawn lots for many things, including slaves and land. The modern state lottery began in New Hampshire in 1964 and has grown to include 37 states and the District of Columbia. Most states regulate their lotteries to ensure that the public is treated fairly.

In the immediate post-World War II period, state governments viewed lotteries as a way to expand their social safety net programs without having to raise taxes on the middle class and working poor. The principal argument used in every state to promote the adoption of a lottery emphasized its value as a source of “painless” revenue: players would voluntarily spend their own money (as opposed to the general public being taxed) for the public good.

It is not surprising that state lotteries have become so popular. Compared to other forms of gambling, they are relatively low-cost and provide the prospect of substantial prizes. They also have the added benefit of a built-in base of dedicated participants. This large group of players, some of them devoted to the game for years and spending $50 or $100 a week, creates demand that lottery companies can exploit with big, eye-catching advertising campaigns.

However, lotteries have several problems that make them problematic, even harmful. First, they are a classic example of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally. The legislature enacts the lottery statute; establishes a state agency to run it; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the operation, adding more games.

The second problem is that lotteries rely on the message that playing the lottery is fun. They advertise their games to reach a wide range of specific constituencies: convenience store operators (who often serve as vendors); lottery suppliers (who frequently contribute to state political campaigns); teachers (in states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); and state legislators, who quickly learn to depend on the new revenue source.

Finally, lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches. They do this by displaying the size of jackpots on billboards and television advertisements. They also do it by recruiting celebrities to endorse the games and encourage players to play. In addition, the media often portrays the winners of major lottery jackpots as happy and successful — an image that is highly misleading. It is important to remember that, for most people who play, the lottery is not a source of wealth or happiness. It is a very risky way to try to get those things.