Why Lottery Advertising Works


In the nineteen-sixties, he writes, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. Thanks to soaring population growth, inflation, and the cost of Vietnam and other wars, it became impossible for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Both options were deeply unpopular with voters, and in this environment lotteries were a quick and easy way to raise cash.

Lottery advocates quickly learned that public approval for state gambling was highly dependent on whether its proceeds were seen as benefiting a specific government service, typically education. As long as a percentage of the winnings went to a popular, nonpartisan cause, lotteries could enjoy broad public support even when the states’ financial health was solid. As the lottery’s popularity grew, its proponents abandoned ethical objections to gambling and started telling voters that their votes for the games were in fact votes for good public policy.

A second reason that lottery advertising is so effective is that it exploits people’s desire for the good life, which is inherently addictive. As Cohen explains, “Everything about the lottery—its ads, the design of the tickets, and even the math behind it—is designed to keep players hooked.” This is not so different from strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers, but it’s done under the auspices of the government.

Third, the lottery appeals to people’s covetousness. One of the Ten Commandments is a warning against covetousness: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that is his.” People who play the lottery are lured by promises that if they could only win the jackpot, all their problems would disappear. But as the Bible teaches, money cannot solve human problems (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

Lastly, the lottery is a form of passive income, which means it’s an easy and painless way to pay taxes. While some critics of the game argue that it isn’t true taxation because the prizes are distributed by a process that relies solely on chance, this argument ignores the fact that many other types of competitions use a similar distribution method. For example, a cooking contest that involves several stages and requires skill to advance to the next round is still a lottery, as is the Dutch Staatsloterij, which has been running since 1726.