Lottery Advertising and Misinformation

The lottery is a form of gambling that involves selecting numbers or symbols from a pool of tickets or counterfoils. The process of selecting winners is random and based solely on chance. In the past, drawing winners was done by shaking or tossing the pool of tickets and counterfoils; more recently, computer technology has been used to generate random numbers. Despite the obvious risks of gambling, many people participate in the lottery on a regular basis. Some states have even established state-run lotteries to generate revenue for public purposes.

State-run lotteries are not subject to the same public accountability as other forms of government spending, and they have developed a reputation for being highly regressive, especially when jackpots are very large. The reason is that they draw a substantial proportion of their revenue from the poor and middle class. In addition, most states have a history of piecemeal policymaking and the accumulation of special interest influence that erodes democratic oversight of lottery officials.

In the immediate post-World War II period, lottery advertising promoted its value as a source of “painless” revenue that would allow governments to expand their array of services without imposing onerous taxes on voters or working families. But the truth is that the lottery is actually a very high-stakes game of chance, in which the overwhelming majority of players have no hope of winning.

Lottery officials have moved away from that message, focusing instead on two main messages: The first is to promote the fun of the scratch-off experience and the idea that playing the lottery is a unique cultural phenomenon. The second is to emphasize the size of the jackpots, a message that obscures the regressivity and attracts new players by appealing to their irrational fantasies about the possibility of striking it rich.

As a result, lottery officials have become adept at creating a tidal wave of misinformation that is designed to distract the public from the reality that they are gambling away their hard-earned money. The tactics include presenting misleading odds of winning; inflating the value of prizes (a prize in a lotto is usually paid in annual installments over 20 years, and inflation drastically reduces its current value); and promoting the lottery as a way to improve education, when in fact it has largely failed to do so.

In some states, officials have taken steps to mitigate these problems. For example, some lotteries have adopted a “split-the-prize” policy in which the winnings are split among all ticket holders who have the same numbers. But this is a limited measure and does nothing to address the fundamental issues of regressive gambling. A broader solution is needed, and that might involve a new kind of lottery: one in which all players have an equal chance of winning. But until that day arrives, there will always be people who want to buy the tickets that have a higher probability of winning. And they will continue to be a tidal wave of disinformation for everyone else.