Boosting Lottery Sales

The casting of lots has a long record in human history—Nero was a fan—and lotteries have been used to make decisions, determine fates, and even distribute treasure. But the modern form of lottery is comparatively recent, dating to at least the 15th century, when towns in the Low Countries began to organize them as a way to raise money for town works and help the poor. These early lotteries usually involved prizes of food or grain, but by the 19th century, they had become more like the games we know today, with a prize of money.

Traditionally, state-sponsored lotteries have operated much like traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing at some future date. But innovations in the 1970s changed this model and led to what we now think of as instant games, which offer smaller prizes and shorter wait times for winners. While these new products initially boosted sales, over time they have proved less lucrative than the more traditional games. And because lotteries have a high cost of production and promotion, they need to continually introduce new games in order to maintain or grow their revenues.

A common strategy for boosting ticket sales is to advertise the size of the prize, and a large jackpot can certainly attract potential bettors. But the drawback to this approach is that the larger the jackpot, the less likely it will be to actually be won. To avoid this problem, a lottery game must balance the desire to advertise a large jackpot with the need to keep its top prize sufficiently high to generate interest in future draws.

Another trick is to make the winning numbers harder to predict. This can increase the odds of winning, but it also drives up the cost of a single ticket. To counter this effect, a lotteries often feature “rollover” prizes that carry over to the next drawing if no one wins the top prize. While this can boost ticket sales, it can also reduce the number of available tickets.

Many people believe that selecting lottery numbers based on significant dates or sequences can improve their chances of winning. But this can be a risky proposition, especially in a popular lottery game. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman says that picking numbers close together—like birthdays or sequential numbers such as 1-2-3-4-5-6—can decrease your chance of winning because others might use the same strategy.

The popularity of the lottery has increased dramatically in recent decades, with most states offering their games. And while some state lawmakers are seeking to limit the industry, most of its supporters are unlikely to abandon it. The reason is simple: It has tapped into a deep vein of American insecurity and the sense that, no matter what they do, they can never really win. For them, the lottery represents a way to break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness by pulling the magic lever. For the rest of us, it offers a bit of fun, and a chance to dream.