Lottery Advertising Messages

Throughout history, people have tossed dice, drawn numbers, or pulled names out of a hat to determine their fates. The casting of lots is a time-honored method, with references in the Bible, for example. In modern times, states and private enterprises have developed an array of lotteries that raise funds for a variety of purposes and are praised as painless forms of taxation. The state-owned Staatsloterij of the Netherlands is the oldest still running lottery (since 1726). State lotteries generally begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games and, as revenue pressures mount, progressively expand their offerings.

Many people play the lottery purely for the joy of it. They may also be influenced by family or friends who have won and tell them how they too can become rich. Regardless of the motivation, lottery advertising often sends a mixed message that suggests gambling is fun, that it can be a way to get out of debt, and that it can even be a way to buy a new home. This is a dangerous combination of messages that could lead to people spending far more than they can afford and creating addictions to gambling that may be difficult to overcome.

In addition to the messages that encourage people to spend more money than they can afford, lotteries rely on two other major messages to win public approval and sustain their popularity. One is the claim that lottery proceeds support a particular public good, usually education. This argument can be particularly effective in times of economic stress, when states must choose between raising taxes and cutting programs to deal with fiscal problems. Yet research shows that the objective fiscal condition of a state does not appear to have much influence on whether or when a lottery is established, and that the general welfare benefits claimed by lotteries are not always realized.

The second major message that lotteries use is to remind people that they are a “good” source of state revenue. This is especially important in those states that rely on lotteries for a significant portion of their budgets. In fact, this is a key reason that the lottery was so popular in the post-World War II period, when states wanted to expand their social safety nets without significantly increasing or burdening middle-class and working-class tax rates.

Nevertheless, the lottery’s success is ultimately driven by a powerful irrational impulse to gamble for money and by the enticement of instant riches. Lottery officials know this, which is why they continue to entice players with big jackpots and with stories of how lucky individuals won. It’s a strategy that will likely continue to pay off for them for years to come. Hopefully, the public will eventually learn to see through these slick advertising campaigns and demand more honest, transparent information about the lottery. In the meantime, people should keep in mind that the lottery is nothing more than a government-sponsored gambling enterprise.