Printer Friendly

Everyone's a loser: how lottery ads entice the wrong people to gamble.

Tom had been playing the lottery for two years when God started whispering in his ear. At first, Tom (who asked that his last name be withheld) would spend just a few dollars a week. He had his regular numbers, and he'd play them when he thought of it.

But then, he says, on the days that he hadn't planned on playing, the word would come from Heaven: Your number is coming tonight. Fear would strike him like ice water on the neck: "I'd think, 'I'm not going to win it. I don't have the [money] on that number.'" So he'd rush out to play his regular number, and many more. Before long, he was spending $300 a week on tickets.

"It was 'A Dollar and a Dream'; 'Hey, You Never Know,'" he says, repeating the advertising slogans of the New York lottery. Tom pauses. "Those were good come-ons."

It's no accident that the voices inside Tom's head echoed lottery ads. They're extremely effective. And they're everywhere: on the radio and TV, in bus shelters and on billboards, even in mailings sent straight to homes. The message is simple: Play the lottery and get rich. Get rich, and all your problems will be solved. The New York lottery takes in more than $2 billion in sales each year, and it spends $30 million each year on advertising to keep the cash rolling in.

State lotteries target anyone who might cough up a dollar (or $10 or $20) for the chance to strike it rich. Conveniently silent on the odds, these ads send the message that hard work and patience is for suckers. In the process, the ads help wring billions of dollars from the most vulnerable "customers" possible--the poor and the addicted.

Criticism of state lotteries runs a wide gamut. Some say the state shouldn't even allow gambling, much less conduct it. Others argue that gambling should be left in private hands. Still others believe that the state should run lotteries for roughly the same reason many states run liquor stores: to keep the business controlled and clean, and to make money for the state.

Regardless of where you stand on these important questions, though, one thing should be clear: The advertising that entices Americans to spend tens of billions of dollars on lottery tickets each year is deceitful and corrosive. It is the only form of advertising unburdened by state and federal truth-in-advertising standards. The fact that it comes from the state--which ought to encourage people's strengths, not prey on their weaknesses--makes it all the more foul.

Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have instituted lotteries, and that number is likely to grow. "Quite simply, states need the revenue," explains David Gale, executive director of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. "Every dollar raised by the lottery is a dollar you don't need to get from taxes." Across the country, $34 billion in lottery tickets were sold in 1994. In Texas, the lottery contributed $935 million to the state's budget. In New York, the figure was $1.01 billion. As states have become dependent on lottery revenue, the pressure to keep people playing has become relentless. "Marketing is absolutely essential," Gale says. "Lottery tickets are no different than any other product. Your market will lose interest after a while. You have to keep after them."

Like any sophisticated business, lotteries target the specific groups of people most susceptible to suggestion. The Iowa lottery's media plan, for example, contains the following statement of objective: "To target our message demographically against those that we know to be heavy users."

One such target is the poor. The charge that lotteries are regressive--that is, hitting lower-income residents the hardest--makes intuitive sense, since the pitch of wealthy fantasies clearly resonates most strongly among those who are least affluent. "There's absolutely no question about it," says Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University economist and a leading authority on lotteries. According to a study by the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, the poor spend more money than the non-poor on lotteries--not only as a percentage of their income, but also in absolute terms. Blacks and Hispanics also tend to play more often than whites.

I worked two summers at an Ohio convenience store that sold lottery tickets, and my experience there confirms these findings. The store drew customers from all socioeconomic backgrounds, but lottery players fell into distinct categories. On a normal day, the lottery patrons were mostly working-class blacks. When the jackpots for Super Lotto got sky-high, some wealthier folks joined the lines. But the staple customers--those who spent five, 20, or 40 dollars a day on daily numbers and scratch-off games--were the same people every day: not executives or store managers playing for kicks, but postal workers and retirees on Social Security. You'll see the same trend at almost any lottery outlet. You'll also notice that the same stores almost invariably sell liquor and cigarettes. Choose your poison.

The image of miserable working people magically transported to lives of wealth and ease is a staple of lottery ads. A billboard once placed in a slum of Chicago read simply: "YOUR TICKET OUT OF HERE." An ad for the D.C. lottery shows a man "before" the lottery--with matted hair, stubble on his face, and glasses--and "after"--freshly washed and clean-shaven, wearing a tuxedo, and holding the program for a theater performance. The copy reads: "Just One Ticket...And It Could Happen to You." An ad for the Michigan lottery shows a college kid piloting a Lear jet. Then it cuts to him daydreaming on the job at a fast food restaurant. "Thirty new Lotto millionaires were created last year," the announcer states. "Play the Lotto, and you could win the stuff dreams are made of."

Lottery ads also go after gambling addicts, using a message tuned to their weaknesses. About 5 percent of the population is susceptible to compulsive gambling, according to Dr. Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore. In many cases, she says, lottery ads help tip these people over the edge.

Remember Tom's greatest fear, that his number would fall on a day he hadn't bet? This is one of the defining characteristics of compulsive gamblers, and it's a button that lotteries push incessantly. "Don't forget to play every day," the Pennsylvania lottery ad says. Many ads picture disheartened would-be winners whose numbers came up on a day they declined or forgot to play. One ad for Tri-State Megabucks (in New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont), for example, shows a pathetic man grilling hamburgers on a fire escape, while scenes of wealth and grandeur flash by. The theme is set to the tune of "It Had to Be You."

It could have been you.

It could have been you.

Countin' the dough,

Ready to go, on that three-month cruise.

Walkin' in style, down easy street,

Wearin' a smile, it could have been sweet.

But what can I say?

You just didn't play.

It could have been youuuuu!

The theme of magical, instant transformation also lures problem gamblers. "They live in a very painful world," says Dr. Lorenz. "They want to escape into fantasy, and they want it instantly." And, of course, the sheer regularity of the ads is a curse to addicts trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow. "I hear this all the time from lottery addicts who are in recovery," Lorenz says. "They'll cover their ears or their heads. They'll say, 'I wish I could leave the state.' But that wouldn't help. It's all over the country."

The ads never mention the losers. Tom Cummings, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, told me about two women he has been counseling. "One lost her house after going $40,000 in debt playing the lottery," he said. "The other gambled away money that was supposed to pay for her daughter's education. All on the lottery."

Lotteries aren't alone in suggesting that their product has magical qualities--that's the art of advertising. But lottery ads take a prize when it comes to their systematic distortion. Because the lotteries are chartered by state legislatures, they're untouchable by federal regulators and they consider state regulators their colleagues in public service. This allows lotteries to conceal the astronomical odds against winning and inflate the size of jackpots.

Consider a 1993 California radio spot profiling a lottery winner: "John Padgett went to bed on Saturday night a regular guy," the announcer says. "When he woke up, he was worth $11 million. That's because he's Super Lotto winner number 610."

Well, not quite. Padgett did win an $11.5 million jackpot. But that's not worth $11.5 million. Any prize over a million dollars is paid out over 20 years. Padgett's annual payment came to $575,000. After taxes, the actual yearly award is worth around $400,000. And the lost value--due to both inflation ($400,000 will be worth far less in 2013 than it is today) and lost interest--is significant.

It may be hard to sympathize with someone receiving a $400,000 check every year. But this ad--and nearly every state uses a similar pitch--is clearly misleading. The government would never allow similar distortions from private sector advertisers.

Finance companies, for example, are explicitly forbidden to air commercials that feature investors who have earned vast sums of money with the message, "It could be you." But lotteries do just that. "I was probably going to have to go back to work to make ends meet," Kentucky lottery winner Denise Golden says in one ad. "And now I won't have to.... It's a dream come true."

Lotteries are also exempt from Federal Trade Commission truth-in-advertising standards and rules that, to give just one example, require contests and sweepstakes to clearly state the odds against winning in every advertisement. Omitting the odds is a crucial element of lotteries' media strategy, since they're trying to convince people that if they play long enough, they are certain to hit the jackpot. "Sooner than later," says an ad for the West Virginia lottery, "you're gonna win!" "We won't stop until everyone's a millionaire," the New York lottery promises.

A clue as to how far lotteries exceed the bounds that constrain other advertisers is indicated by a report from the National Association of Broadcasters issued in 1975. Three tactics seemed clearly out of bounds, the NAB concluded:

1. [Indicating] what fictitious winners may do, hope to do or have done with their winnings.

2. [Using] unqualified or inaccurate language re- garding potential winners' winnings. (e.g. "There's a pot of gold for those who buy lottery tickets"; "Buy a ticket and be a winner.")

3. [Utilizing] approaches which praise people who buy lottery tickets or denigrate people who do not buy tickets.

Today's lotteries hold themselves to no such standards. The only rule is to produce maximum profit. Even in Virginia and Texas, two states that forbid their lotteries to "induce" people to play, ads make gambling seem fun and glamorous. Missouri originally required all its lottery ads to include a disclaimer: "This not intended to induce any person to participate in the lottery or purchase a lottery ticket." The disclaimer was dropped in 1988. It was thought to be hurting sales.

Lotteries defend themselves against criticism by citing the revenue they raise. They also advertise to publicize their role in funding state projects. (Not only does this approach bolster political support, it's also a shrewd ploy to hook more players. Gambling is fun--and it's also a public service!)

Each state has its own slogan: "When Colorado plays, everybody wins." "The Missouri lottery: It makes life a little richer for all of us." The premise of these ads--and a crucial element of lotteries' popularity--is that money goes to improving favorite areas of state spending, like schools or parks. But this is a mere accounting trick. Ohio claims that its lottery revenue goes toward education, for example. "But that doesn't mean that the budget for education grows by that much," David Gale explains. "What happens is, the legislature budgets this much for education. They see the lottery will contribute this much. So they take the money they would have spent on education and put it to other uses."

Most states avoid the fiction altogether and say outright that the money goes to the general fund. But that doesn't stop lotteries from claiming credit for the very best of state government. On its 20th anniversary, the Maryland lottery ran a series of "public service" ads. One pictured a nurse holding an infant, saying the baby would get better care because of the Maryland lottery. Another ad in the series gave credit to the lottery for the high school graduation of an inner-city black teenager.

It is true that lottery profits go to state treasuries. But so do taxes. Taxes are also honestly raised and reflect community decisions about how to fairly distribute burdens and responsibilities. In the current political climate, raising lottery revenue is a political virtue; raising taxes is political death. Naturally, politicians choose the easy route. New York Governor George Pataki recently announced plans for an enormous tax cut. He intends to make up the loss in revenue through the introduction of "five minute keno" in liquor stores and bars, which is expected to net the state $115 million per year.

Lotteries defend themselves by pointing out the obvious: No one is forced to buy a lottery ticket. "I get so angry when people say they should decide how [others] should spend their money," says Teresa La Fleur, who publishes books and a magazine for the lottery industry. "Unless we decide it's wrong to gamble, it's just a fact of life that people are going to make choices with their money."

But states don't merely allow, or provide, gambling. They stimulate it. In addition to running ads, some states even conduct direct-mail campaigns, sending coupons for free tickets via mail. In a typical campaign, cited in Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America, by Clotfelter and co-author Phillip Cook, 35 to 40 percent of the coupons were redeemed for lottery tickets. One-third of those who redeemed the coupons were new players; one-third of these new players began to play regularly.

Considering the addictiveness of lotteries, these types of promotions are inexcusable. Of the nearly 40,000 calls to the Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey last year, for example, 52 percent complained of addiction to lottery games. Imagine the outcry if Phillip Morris sent free packs of cigarettes through the mail.

In fact, the parallel between cigarettes and lottery tickets is uncanny. That's why both have been the subject of strict limits on advertising. Until 1974, when Congress repealed a ban on the promotion of gambling in the mass media, TV stations couldn't so much as mention winning numbers. Now, of course, TV is the most popular medium of advertising. Besides the many commercials, lottery drawings are televised and a number of states have half-hour game shows centered around the lottery.

Congressman Jim McCrery, a Republican from Louisiana, has introduced legislation requiring the Federal Trade Commission to impose truth-in-advertising standards on lotteries. That would be a start. But a more dramatic step--banning ads altogether--is in order.

Lottery ads don't just sell a product. They sell a way of life. One ad for the Washington state lottery shows a line of workers punching their time clock. "The true joys in life," the announcer says, "are not found in the empty pursuit of pleasure, but in the accomplishments realized through one's own hard labor. For nothing satisfies the soul so much as honest toil, and seeing through a job well done." Then the man at the end of the line takes his timesheet and throws it out the window. "Of course, having a whole bunch of money's not bad either."

When will public officials stop for a moment, and listen to what they're saying--that hard work and patience are for suckers, that civic virtue is a function of how much you spend on the lottery? "Even in these cynical times," says Clotfelter, "government has some moral capital. So when the government says 'Children, stay in school'; 'Husbands, don't beat your wives'--these have some value to them. If you take that capital and use it [the way lotteries do], one has to ask, does this serve the intention of the state?"
COPYRIGHT 1995 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Shenk, Joshua Wolf
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Previous Article:The media's Japan problem.
Next Article:The case for unions.

Related Articles
Games people shouldn't play; state lotteries take from the poor and give to the rich.
Gambling issues and the ballot box.
Gambler's Web.
Snake Eyes.
Government lotteries are for suckers.
Lotto blotto.
$311 per Oregonian.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters