The Truth About Lottery Marketing

The villagers of an unnamed small town gather in the town square on June 27th for their yearly lottery. The children on summer break are the first to assemble; later, adult men and women converge, chattily reminiscing about past lotteries or lamenting that other towns have stopped holding theirs. The lottery is a ritual that must be observed to ensure good harvests, the narrator declares; it also marks one’s place in the community. The villagers are all expected to participate; those who do not will be ostracized, the story implies.

The word “lottery” is thought to be derived from Middle Dutch loterie, but the first known European lotteries were held during the Roman Empire, primarily as a dinner entertainment, in which guests would receive tickets and prizes such as jewelry could be won. Later, the practice spread throughout Europe and was introduced to America by British colonists, who hoped to use public lotteries to raise money for their governments and private ventures. Lotteries became particularly popular in the early 1740s, when they helped to finance a number of American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale.

By providing an opportunity to win a big prize for a modest investment, the lottery is able to attract millions of people. Although it may be tempting to think of a lottery as a low-risk, risk-free activity, the truth is that purchasing lottery tickets can wreak havoc on a person’s finances, especially if the habit becomes addictive. As a group, lottery players contribute billions to government receipts—money that could be spent on education, health care, or retirement. In addition, lottery play carries many of the same psychological risks as other types of gambling and substance use behaviors.

While there is certainly an inextricable human urge to gamble, there’s more to lottery marketing than meets the eye. Lotteries, by dangling the possibility of instant riches to a population that’s been conditioned to expect a scarcity of financial opportunities, are essentially offering people a free ride on someone else’s money.

In addition to reducing savings and contributing to debt, lottery participation may contribute to gender disparities in gambling and other problem behaviors. Studies indicate that males are more likely to play the lottery than females, and the age at which men begin playing is similar to that for other problem behavior like drinking and drug use. The lottery industry has argued that this is because lottery participation rates are lower among women than men and that women are less likely to make the choice to participate. However, these claims appear to be unsupported by the research literature. In fact, the current gender imbalance in lottery participation is largely due to cultural and historical factors that have nothing to do with the lottery itself. Rather, these gender differences are related to the socialization of boys and girls and the prevalence of patriarchal culture in the United States. A rethinking of these factors is needed to create a lottery system that will be fairer and more equitable for everyone involved.