The advent of government-organized gambling, in the form of state lotteries, is one of our age’s most unnoticed social transformations. Before 1964, America had no such lotteries. Today, only five states don’t run their own, and most others permit interstate games such as Powerball, which jack up prizes to extravagant levels. Lottery participation has skyrocketed. Overall revenues total some $80 billion; New York is the state leader, with $10 billion in ticket sales. The spread of lotteries has played a leading role in the normalization of gambling, once considered a vice akin to drug use or prostitution—and lottery sales are boosted by publicly funded advertising campaigns that prey on the weakness of gambling addicts while encouraging non-gamblers to get involved, too.
Many states use lotteries to help fill their coffers. A 2016 Rockefeller Institute of Government study found that, on average, state lotteries provide 2 percent of overall state revenues. In New York, it’s 2.9 percent; in South Dakota, Oregon, and Georgia, the share exceeds 5 percent.
Since reliance on gambling as a source of government revenue is bipartisan, urging lotteries’ outright abolition is politically unpromising. Individual lottery participation, however, is not nearly so entrenched. States have long varied the types of games they offer in order to maintain interest, and they spend more than $600 million on advertising, especially on television. As the National Council on State Legislatures puts it, “States have been looking to boost awareness of games and increase opportunities to play by adding to advertising budgets and expanding lottery ticket retail locations . . . developing a sound marketing strategy seems to be key.” The poor may believe that lottery dreams can come true, but they apparently need regular reminders.
It’s common for states to frame lotteries as being for a good cause—for public education, say. The claim is meaningless, though: all state money is fungible. The lottery proceeds go into the state’s general fund; one could just as easily say that they’re used to pay down interest on debt.
Lottery advertising goes well beyond such virtue branding. States sell dreams of leisure and luxury. Illinois took out billboard ads in low-income neighborhoods advertising “your ticket out”: a lottery. “The most common form of lottery advertisement encourages ‘magical thinking’ by highlighting potentially life-changing effects of winning the lottery,” writes Andrew Clott, a Chicago attorney who has served as managing editor of the Loyola University Chicago Consumer Law Journal. “Typical advertisements focus on hard-working, blue-collar individuals who took a chance on buying a ticket and won big.” These messages downplay or avoid discussion of the long odds. “Someone’s gotta win,” a Massachusetts ad declares.
New York’s campaigns are more subtle. An award-winning campaign titled “How Would You Spend It?,” part of the lottery’s Cash4Life promotion, emphasizes the virtuous activities in which a lottery winner, freed from the drudgery of work, could engage. In “Have Fun for Life,” closeups show a man inside a house, building a tower for a child with couch pillows, boards, books, and sheets. A soundtrack intones, “I’ll take very good care of you.” Superimposed is the sentence “I’d Spend More Time with My Kids . . . Michael L., Long Island.” It’s the answer to the campaign’s recurring question: “If You Won $1,000 a Day for Life, How Would You Spend It?”
No qualifying statements accompany such ads because state lotteries are exempt from Federal Trade Commission “truth-in-advertising” regulation. Washington can’t regulate the actions of state governments. “If the lottery were run purely by private industry instead of by state governments, it is likely the FTC guidelines would prohibit much of the current lottery advertising,” observes Clott. “Without this baseline of protection, consumers fall prey to sophisticated, deceptive marketing strategies which are backed by massive financial resources.”
Lottery ads also help reinforce problem gambling, medically recognized as a behavioral addiction that afflicts, by some estimates, 10 million Americans. The National Institute of Mental Health, moreover, finds that the percentage of adult Americans who meet its criteria for “pathological gambling” has risen from 3.5 percent in 2000 to 4.6 percent more recently. The Harvard Review of Psychiatry notes that behavioral addictions like compulsive gambling have effects including “dysfunction within the family unit, incarceration, early school dropouts, financial troubles, which are often overlooked despite tremendous implications for public health.”
In a culture rife with gambling opportunities, casino advertising, and Internet betting, one can’t blame state lottery advertising alone for problem gambling. But the state’s seal of approval carries special weight: here, the government is not offering help in solving problems—as it typically does—but actively promoting an activity that causes problems. State lottery advertising also has a corrosive effect on social norms. The ads promote the theme that work is not a source of purpose but an obstacle standing in the way of happiness. One is better off making a one-in-a-million bet than saving his money. These messages not only undermine the work ethic but also misrepresent how one finds fulfillment—through healthy personal habits, thrift, and striking a balance between work and family. Instead, millions hear that they’re chumps for taking such a path and would be wiser to play games of chance.
It’s time for states to ban lottery advertising. Sure, let people play, post the winning numbers—but stop selling the dream. Weaning government from our addiction to promoting lotteries wouldn’t be easy. An adjustment period would be necessary as lottery revenues fell—though perhaps the adjustment would not be dramatic. Massachusetts, among the first states to mount a lottery, later moved to limit advertising—at one point, cutting it from $12 million to just $400,000 a year—but the state has not seen lottery revenues crater. On the positive side, tax revenues might even increase as citizens, freed from such dispiriting messages, reembrace working and saving. In any case, though, getting states out of lottery advertising is the right thing to do.