As a public policy issue, lottery is a classic case of an industry evolving outside the control of state governments. State officials are often left with a system that they cannot easily change or regulate, and with revenues and a customer base that they can hardly ignore.

Lottery advocates argue that it provides states with a means to raise money for the common good, without increasing taxes or cutting other essential programs. They also contend that it captures inevitable gambling behavior that would have occurred anyway, and thus benefits the general population by deflecting some of its attention from illegal gambling operations. The problem with this line of argument is that it mischaracterizes state governments’ fiscal circumstances, and conflates the necessity of government with the popularity of a particular lottery game.

Another important aspect of lottery advertising is its appeal to emotions and societal norms. Billboards for Mega Millions and Powerball, for example, feature photos of happy families and promise huge prizes. These messages are effective in appealing to a sense of social responsibilities and instilling a desire for wealth.

Another aspect of lottery marketing is the use of the word “random” to imply that winning is not just possible but probable. The truth is, though, that the odds of winning a prize vary wildly depending on the size of the prize and the number of tickets sold. A more reasonable way to evaluate a lottery is to look at the expected value, which is the probability of a specific outcome assuming all outcomes are equally likely.