Lottery Advertising and Public Benefits

The drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, including several cases recorded in the Bible. In modern times, lotteries have been used to raise funds for towns, wars, colleges, and public works projects. In the United States, the first state lottery was established in 1612. Lottery advertising generally focuses on showcasing large jackpots, which attract people who have an innate appetite for risk. In the United States, state governments have monopoly rights to operate lotteries; their profits are used solely for government purposes.

The primary argument made to support a state lottery is that the proceeds will benefit a particular public good, such as education. This is a powerful argument in times of economic stress, when voters may fear tax increases or cutbacks on public services. However, research has shown that the objective fiscal condition of a state does not have much effect on whether or when it adopts a lottery.

State governments also promote the idea that winning the lottery is fun. They encourage people to play regularly and advertise the excitement of scratching a ticket. The result is a culture in which playing the lottery, even for the smallest prize, is considered a harmless form of entertainment. The promotion of this premise obscures the regressivity of lottery revenue and can encourage people to spend an undue amount of money on tickets. This practice is particularly harmful for poor and middle-class households.