The Dark Side of Lottery Advertising


A lottery is a type of gambling game in which numbers are drawn for a prize. It is a form of chance, and it is generally considered to be a fair way to award prizes, because each number has the same chance of winning as every other number. In some lotteries, there are a few large prizes, but the majority of entries are for smaller amounts. Many governments have lotteries, and people can play them in a variety of ways, including through online systems.

In addition to providing entertainment, lotteries have historically provided a useful public service and acted as an effective painless tax. They were used in the 17th century to raise money for a wide range of projects, from supplying guns for the British Museum to building bridges, and they became particularly popular with Dutch citizens who were then experiencing a period of rapid economic growth.

Nevertheless, the fact that they involve gambling should be taken into account when considering their utility as a means of raising funds. Lotteries can be a valuable tool for raising money, but they also have a dark side. People are irrationally obsessed with the lottery and often spend an inordinate amount of time buying and studying their tickets, trying to find a “system” that will increase their odds of winning. They may buy a ticket for the right reason, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are making a rational decision.

People who play the lottery often believe that they are doing a good deed when they purchase their tickets, but I have never seen them discuss the specific benefits of the money that state lotteries raise. Instead, they rely on two messages primarily:

One message is that playing the lottery is fun. Lottery advertisements promote this message by describing how much the experience of scratching off a ticket is enjoyable. It is an important message, and it helps keep people engaged in the activity despite the fact that they are essentially spending their money on a long-shot.

The other message that lotteries are promoting is that, even if you don’t win, you should feel good because you did your civic duty. The problem with this message is that it obscures how regressive lottery play is. Lottery ads rarely discuss the percentage of proceeds that go to those who lose, and they do not explain how a small percentage of people manage to break the odds and win the top prizes. Moreover, the ads tend to focus on “life-changing” wins and the number of dollars that were won, rather than on how many people actually won. This subtlety is not lost on the average lottery player, who is likely to make more than one trip to the grocery store and to the gas station. As a result, it is not surprising that the average person who plays the lottery spends about six hours each week on their lottery tickets. This is a significant investment of time and resources, and the return on this investment is very low.