Lottery, in which the prizes are usually money or goods, is a form of gambling that has been used for thousands of years. Its earliest recorded use dates back to the 15th century in the Low Countries, where town records from Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges show public lotteries raising money for the poor or for building walls and town fortifications. In the modern sense of the word, lotteries are run by state governments and are a popular form of recreation for many people. The prize money ranges from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. The odds of winning a lottery depend on how many tickets are sold and the type of ticket purchased.
For some people, winning the lottery is a last resort, a way to make ends meet and maybe avoid eviction from their home. They may be on the verge of bankruptcy or have a medical condition that could bankrupt them if they don’t win. But they don’t know any better than anyone else that the chances of winning are extremely slim and that they are essentially throwing away their money. And that’s why they keep playing, often for hundreds of dollars a week.
These people are the ones that state lottery officials have targeted for a marketing campaign that relies on the same principles that tobacco and video game companies have long used to keep their products in consumers’ hands. Lottery commissions have been quick to realize that this is an opportunity to exploit the psychology of addiction, and they are deploying every strategy in their arsenal to get lottery players to continue to spend their money.
The main message is that the games are fun, which obscures their regressivity and obscures how much money they are costing the players. The other message is that the prizes are large and life-changing, which also obscures how unlikely it is for most players to win and encourages them to play.
Despite the fact that the odds of winning are poor, lottery sales have boomed, thanks to super-sized jackpots that are advertised on television and news sites. These soaring jackpots do not only attract customers, but they also earn lottery games a windfall of free publicity. They have also prompted a wave of mergers among state lotteries and the rise of mega-lotteries like Powerball and Mega Millions.
As lottery jackpots have climbed, states have been forced to shift their sales strategies, and the result has been a schizophrenic approach to the promotion of these games. Lottery advocates have shifted their arguments from a promise that a lottery would float a state’s budget to the claim that it would cover a specific line item—usually education but occasionally veterans’ benefits or even parks. This more focused approach has allowed proponents to maintain a high level of public support for their cause and to avoid the politically fraught topic of taxes. They have also figured out how to appeal to people’s sense of fairness by offering them a way to share the wealth.