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The Truth About Lottery Advertising


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine the winner. It is a common form of raising funds for public projects, and has been used since ancient times. It is one of the most popular forms of gambling, with a large number of people participating in it every week in the United States alone. However, many critics point to the problems associated with gambling, including its regressive effect on lower-income groups. Despite these concerns, the lottery continues to be widely used as a source of revenue for state governments.

Lotteries have broad appeal among the general public, and there is an inextricable human urge to play them. But while lottery advertising often presents the enticing possibility of instant riches, it also can be misleading. Critics charge that it omits or obscures information about the odds of winning, inflates the value of the money won (lottery prizes are typically paid out in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the actual value), and focuses on flashy and glamorous jackpot amounts rather than on the actual likelihood of winning.

As a result, it is easy to overlook the fact that lottery advertising promotes gambling as an acceptable activity for society, and that the odds of winning are extremely low. This raises serious questions about whether the public should be able to benefit from lottery advertising without being subjected to its negative impacts on the poor and problem gamblers.

The earliest known lotteries were probably similar to modern raffles, where numbers were drawn out of a box or other container. The first known references to these activities are found in the Old Testament, and later in the books of the Romans, where the drawing of lots was employed to distribute land and slaves. Later, lotteries were brought to America by British colonists, and became a regular feature of American life in the 18th century, financing roads, churches, colleges, and canals.

After a lottery is established, the state usually legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public agency or corporation to run the lottery; and begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Over time, pressure to raise revenues drives expansion, both in terms of the number of games offered and the size of the jackpots.

In addition to drawing players from the general public, state-sponsored lotteries develop extensive specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (lottery tickets are the most common item sold at these stores), suppliers of equipment and services for running the lottery (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers, whose salaries are often earmarked from lottery revenues; and state legislators, who grow accustomed to the new source of revenue.

Because the lottery is a business that seeks to maximize its revenues, it must constantly market itself. Consequently, lottery advertising must necessarily be at cross-purposes with the public interest. This is particularly true when it promotes gambling as a desirable activity for society, as opposed to its legitimate role as a source of painless public revenue.