Lottery Advertising and the Public Interest


Whether on television, in newspapers or at check-cashing venues, lottery ads and commercials make it impossible to ignore the fact that people are spending a lot of money hoping to win big. In a time of increasing inequality and limited social mobility, the lure of instant riches seems alluring to many, especially when the odds are so long. But is running a lottery at cross-purposes with the public interest? And does it promote addiction to gambling in a way that might have adverse social consequences?

Lotteries are a form of gambling that awards prizes based on the drawing of numbers or symbols, and is a popular source of public revenue in several countries. Prizes can range from cash to goods and services. In the United States, lottery profits are used for education, public works and crime control, among other purposes. In addition to traditional state lotteries, some private companies run their own lotteries to generate revenue and profit for the company.

In the United States, state lotteries raise billions of dollars each year and are one of the most popular forms of gambling. While some play for the thrill of winning, others use it to improve their quality of life or provide a means of support for family members. Some people are addicted to gambling, while others can control their spending and still enjoy the game.

The first lotteries, called public lotteries or public games of chance, were held in the fourteen-hundreds in the Low Countries to fund town fortifications and help the poor. The tickets cost ten shillings, the equivalent of about US$100 today, and had a relatively high prize value. The odds were, however, far lower than in modern lottery games.

Since then, lottery operations have evolved at an incredible pace. The basic pattern is similar: A government establishes a state-run monopoly; appoints an agency or public corporation to manage the lottery; begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, in response to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the number of available games.

A key part of the expansion is the emergence of new games, especially scratch-off tickets. These offer a much smaller prize but higher odds than regular lottery tickets, enticing people to spend more money to try and win. They also generate a great deal of publicity for the game, helping increase sales.

Another factor in the continuing expansion of lottery offerings is a change in the social and economic context. Lottery revenues have increased at the same time that income disparities widened, health-care costs rose and job security disappeared for most working Americans. The result has been a growing obsession with unimaginable wealth, which is often portrayed as a short path to a better future.

Despite the growing popularity of lotteries and their potential for raising needed public revenues, they have become increasingly controversial. Criticisms of the industry have shifted from general debates about the desirability of gambling to more specific concerns about problems associated with particular games and ways of operating them. These concerns include the prevalence of compulsive gambling, alleged regressive effects on lower-income groups and the way in which games are advertised.