The Problems With Lottery Advertising

In the United States, lotteries are state-sponsored games in which prizes—usually money—are awarded by chance. The word is derived from the Dutch noun lot “fate” (itself borrowed from Old French loterie, from lotinge “action of drawing lots”) and the early records show that public lotteries were popular in the Low Countries by the 15th century. These were held to raise money for town fortifications, aid the poor, and pay for other public uses.

A merchandising element of the modern lottery is offering popular products such as automobiles and vacations in addition to cash. Many of these promotions are a collaboration between the state and a company. The companies benefit from the naming rights to the product and share the advertising costs with the lottery. The products benefit from being associated with the lottery and often feature celebrities, sports franchises, or cartoon characters.

People play the lottery because they like to gamble, and it’s hard to resist the glamor of winning. But the odds are long. As Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, puts it: “Lotteries are a tribute to human innumeracy. They are the result of our irrational belief that we can beat the laws of probability.”

The biggest problem with lotteries is not their regressivity, but the false message they send to Americans about wealth and success. The ad campaigns on billboards, television and radio imply that everybody plays the lottery, when in fact the player base is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male.