The Dangers of Lottery Ads


Lottery has been a popular pastime for millennia. The earliest evidence comes from Roman times (Nero was a big fan) and the Bible, where casting lots is used for everything from picking the next king to deciding who gets Jesus’ clothes after his crucifixion. Most often, though, it’s been deployed as a way to raise money for public works projects.

In the 17th century, lotteries were popular in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, where they’re still a mainstay today. Lottery tickets are cheap and the prizes, which range from a few hundred dollars to tens of millions of dollars, are enormously appealing. The Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij is the oldest lottery in the world and arguably the most successful, raising billions of euros for everything from education to highways.

The modern incarnation of the lottery is a little different, though. Instead of promoting itself as a painless form of taxation, it’s now sold on the promise that you can change your life for the better by buying a ticket. But that’s a dangerous message, because the truth is that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose – you’re going to end up worse off than you started.

What’s more, the odds of winning a jackpot are decreasing all the time. As prize sizes have ballooned, the chances of striking it rich are dramatically shrinking – from one in three million to now just over one in a hundred thousand. But despite the low odds, many people still play the lottery hoping to win the dream of a new start.

It’s hard to blame them: Lottery advertisements focus on the excitement of scratching a ticket and on the belief that “everyone deserves a chance.” They’re coded for the idea that a jackpot will provide that opportunity, and they can feel like a socially responsible activity because they support the state.

Yet if you think about the actual numbers, they don’t add up. The fact is that the initial odds are so fantastic that the actual percentage chances of winning aren’t nearly as large as they seem. This is why lottery ads tend to rely on two messages primarily:

The second is that the money lottery players spend supports a specific line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan – education, elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. In an era when the state is facing a fiscal crisis, this argument is powerful because it fends off criticism that lottery profits are too regressive. But it’s not enough to make the case for legalization, Cohen writes. Lottery advocates need to rethink their strategy. They need to stop selling the lottery as a silver bullet that will float most of a state’s budget and instead argue that it can cover a single, specific service whose need is widely appreciated. If they can do that, they may find it much easier to sell their cause.