Lottery Advertising Misleads Consumers

Historically, lotteries have been a common way for governments to raise funds for a variety of projects. This is particularly true in the immediate post-World War II period, when state governments could expand their array of services without imposing especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. In fact, the very first recorded signs of a lottery date back to keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty, between 205 and 187 BC. But as state government budgets were increasingly strained, the public’s support for the idea of a state-sponsored gambling game began to wane.

Lotteries were promoted in part because they would provide a relatively easy and low-impact source of revenue for states, while at the same time allowing citizens to enjoy the entertainment value of playing games of chance. These benefits, it was believed, would outweigh the disutility of losing money. But it is now clear that there are other ways to increase a person’s utility without incurring the costs of gambling, including savings and investing, paying off credit card debt, and putting money in an emergency fund.

When a lot of people play the lottery, they usually buy multiple tickets, each with a unique number. These tickets are then entered into the drawing, which is based entirely on chance. Some numbers, such as 7 or 2, seem to appear more often than others, but this is due to random chance and there is nothing that any individual can do to change the odds of winning.

The people who run the lottery do have strict rules to prevent “rigging” results, but the fact that the same numbers come up more frequently than others does not necessarily mean that the system is unbiased. This is because random chance has many different possible outcomes, and each outcome is equally likely to occur in any given drawing.

Lottery advertising is designed to convince consumers that the prizes are so large and the odds so low that the risk of losing is minimal. The marketing message is also designed to appeal to the human desire for instant gratification. For example, the ad might show a smiling family huddled together in front of an enormous pile of cash.

While it is not the fault of the lottery commissions that consumers are misled by this marketing message, it does pose questions about whether state governments should be running a business whose primary function is to promote gambling to its citizens. The popularity of lotteries seems to be unrelated to a state’s actual fiscal health, as the proceeds are seen by most to benefit a particular public good, such as education. This may well be a reason why lotteries have been so successful at winning and retaining broad public approval. The evolution of the state lottery is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall overview or oversight by any general authority, and with power consolidated in specific constituencies such as convenience store operators and lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by lottery suppliers to state political campaigns are routinely reported). The result is that, in most states, public officials have adopted policies and become dependent on revenues they cannot control.