Lottery Advertising and Social Benefits

A lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize (cash, goods, services, or other items) is awarded to a winning ticket holder. Prizes can also be distributed by a random drawing without payment of any consideration, such as those used for military conscription or commercial promotions in which property is given away randomly. Lottery systems are used by many governments and organizations, including schools, the United States Armed Forces, private corporations, and charitable groups. The modern era of state-supported lotteries began with New Hampshire’s establishment of one in 1964, and the concept is now widespread in most of the nation’s states.

The practice of determining distributions by lot dates back centuries. The Old Testament has Moses instructed to conduct a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. In the modern world, lotteries are widely used by state and local governments to fund everything from roadwork to public libraries. They are also promoted by convenience stores and other retail outlets as a way to raise cash for needed community projects.

While a prize in the form of cash is the most common, some lotteries offer prizes such as cars, vacations, and even college tuition. In the early American colonies, lotteries were used to raise funds for town fortifications and to assist the poor. A lottery was even held to pay for Benjamin Franklin’s unsuccessful attempt to purchase cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British during the American Revolution.

Most state-sponsored lotteries are run as a business, with the goal of increasing revenues through advertising and sales. This inevitably leads to the question of whether lottery advertising promotes gambling at cross-purposes with broader societal interests. While some states have earmarked lottery profits for specific purposes, others spend most of the money outside the jackpot on administrative costs, such as prize payments and retailer commissions.

Most states have found that a major selling point for their lotteries is the fact that they are perceived as a painless way to raise tax revenue. While this is true, the fact that a lottery involves paying for a chance to win does not necessarily make it an appropriate method of raising taxes. Rather, lottery proceeds should be used to promote a positive social outcome, such as education or infrastructure improvements. This article was adapted from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.