Lottery Advertising Targets Super Users

Lottery is a type of gambling in which people purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize, typically money. The winner is chosen by a random drawing. Lotteries are often promoted as a way to raise funds for public works projects, but they can also benefit educational programs and charitable causes. While critics of the lottery charge that the odds of winning are misleading, many people continue to play for a shot at the big prize.

The first recorded lotteries, which offered tickets for sale with prizes in the form of cash, were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Town records from Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges refer to lotteries that raised money for town walls and fortifications, as well as to help the poor.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run state-sponsored lotteries, with Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada choosing not to participate. The six states are driven by a range of reasons, including religious concerns, the desire not to compete with casinos in Las Vegas, and a lack of fiscal urgency.

Lotteries are a lucrative business for the companies that produce and sell them. They also draw broad consumer support, with more than 60 percent of adult Americans playing at least once a year. But lottery advertising is aimed at a narrow segment of the population: super users, who make up 70 to 80 percent of ticket purchases. These are the lottery players who spend a large proportion of their incomes on tickets and who may be influenced by the promotional messages they receive.

These messages are designed to promote the idea that playing the lottery is not just a game but an act of civic duty. They imply that state lottery profits are earmarked for a specific purpose, such as education, and that the overall percentage of state revenue the lottery raises is modest in comparison with other sources of government funding. They also appeal to particular constituencies, including convenience store operators (who sell tickets and are major vendors for lotteries); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns have become a fixture of the industry); teachers, in states where a portion of lottery proceeds is earmarked for schools; and state legislators, who quickly grow accustomed to the additional revenue.

The odds of winning a lottery are long, and the prize pool is usually much smaller than the amount advertised on television or in other advertising. Organizers must deduct costs and profit from the total prize pool, and must decide whether to offer a few large prizes or more small ones. Lottery advertisements are often highly misleading, presenting information about the odds of winning as if it were accurate, inflating the value of jackpots by factoring in inflation and taxes, and so on. The result is that potential players are misled and often end up spending more than they would if they were aware of the actual odds.