Lottery Marketing

The casting of lots to decide fates and share wealth has a long history, and is found throughout the Bible. But lotteries as a way to raise state revenue are of much more recent origin, with the first public lotteries appearing in Europe in the 15th century. Lotteries were promoted by many towns as a painless form of taxation, with prizes being used to build walls and town fortifications, support the poor, and fund civic amenities.

The modern lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues. To do that they must convince people to spend money on tickets, and to do so often. They must also balance this business imperative with concerns about problem gambling and other consequences for the public good.

To that end, lottery marketing is largely driven by two messages. The first is that playing the lottery is a fun experience, that scratching a ticket is entertaining. The second is that the lottery is a great way to win a fortune, that the prize money is enormous. Both of these messages obscure the regressivity of the system, and the fact that lottery play is often a expensive habit.

Moreover, they obscure the fact that there are a large group of committed gamblers who play the lottery frequently and to a great extent, spending $50 or $100 a week on tickets. These are people who do not take the games lightly, and they do not believe that their participation in the lottery makes them irrational. They are a very distinct and distinctly different population from those who only occasionally play, or even those who do not play at all.

Most lottery advertising is directed at generating high levels of participation among those who are most likely to play: high-school educated, middle aged men in the upper middle class. These are the people who are the most likely to be regular players, and who are disproportionately represented in lottery jackpots. The marketing also tends to accentuate the likelihood that winning a large prize will improve one’s life, which is not surprising given that most people in this category play regularly.

In addition to focusing on the message that the lottery is a great opportunity to win big, marketing also tries to create a perception of transparency by promoting the fact that the winning numbers are randomly generated. However, that does not necessarily mean that the winning numbers are truly random. In a study of lotteries, Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman suggests that people can optimize their chances by picking numbers like birthdays or ages that are frequently picked by others, or by choosing Quick Picks.

Once state lotteries are established, they tend to develop extensive specific constituencies of convenience store operators (whose customers are the primary lottery buyers); suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by suppliers are routinely reported); teachers (in those states where a portion of lottery funds are earmarked for education); and state legislators who quickly become accustomed to the steady flow of additional revenue. As a result, lottery officials are apt to make decisions piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall policy overview or consideration of the general welfare.

Posted in: Gambling