“I’ve always wanted to save the parrots of Nicaragua” begins the latest advertisement for buying lottery tickets. The Mifal HaPayis (Israel National Lottery) radio ad, like its parallel television ads, starts with an actor expressing his noble intent to use his lottery winnings to do good for people and the environment. But then the actor has an abrupt change of heart and decides to spend his winnings on a yacht or a summer home or a sports car. Mocking real environmental and human tragedies is tasteless anyway, but when it’s perpetrated by an agency responsible for encouraging anti-social behavior and peddling a dubious product that discriminates against the poor, it’s altogether unacceptable. The Mifal HaPayis advertising campaign exposes the worst of that institution — its three sins.
Sin #1: Belittling global environmental and social challenges
Showing compassion for an indigenous child facing-off against a bulldozer and then deciding to abandon that child in order to buy a yacht, as shown in one of the Payis advertisements, does not qualify as humor. The destruction of the rain forests is not something that may happen — it already has! And mostly within the last few decades. Between 2000 and 2010, 130,000 sq. km. (about 50,000 sq. m.) of rainforest (an area approximately five times the size of Israel) was lost annually. 75 percent of Madagascar’s forests, 79% of Costa Rica’s forests and 74% of Thailand’s forests have already been deforested. These forests are not only the cradle of the largest diversity of animals and plants in the world, but they are also crucial for regulating carbon, water and soil cycles. With the loss of the forests, we have more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less fresh water retained for plants and animals (including humans), and less soil to support future vegetation.
The Payis ad also mocks the memory of hundreds of indigenous communities that depended on these forests, and whose homes and societies have been destroyed to provide others with beef and timber. Argue what you will about the “march of progress,” this ad campaign is in extremely bad taste.
In a second Payis ad, our prize winner considers saving a humpback whale and her calf from a hunter’s harpoon, but quickly changes his mind and opts for a penthouse, presumably leaving the whale to the harpoon. After decades of over-hunting, the fact that whales survive until this day is much due to the aggressive and persistent conservation efforts of Greenpeace and other environmental organizations (the Payis ad indeed hearkens back to the origins of the organization, when its activists would insert themselves between whales and the harpoons that were aimed that them). Other species have been less fortunate: there will be two-thirds fewer animals on earth in 2020 than there were in 1970 according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London’s 2016 Living Planet Report.
Sins #2 and 3: Encouraging anti-social behavior and pushing a regressive tax
Our Mifal Payis ad protagonist decides that, rather than saving the world, he will indulge in luxury products. It is nothing new that advertising encourages selfish, anti-social materialism. It is a profession based on convincing people to buy products — often products that they don’t need or even want. But this particular advertisement was paid for by a public company at the expense of the same citizens who are buying their product. So our own government company is using our money to encourage us to think only about our narrow interests (again, for luxuries), rather than considering the value of civil and environmental responsibility.
Considering that you are probably not going to win the lottery, the ads are also deceptive. According to Mifal HaPayis’ own statistics, for an investment of 5.8 NIS, you have a 1 in 8,136,744 chance of winning. For an investment of 2,679.60 NIS, you can reduce those odds to 1 in 17,612.
Countless wonderful analogies have been developed to express the chances that you will win the lottery. Two of my favorites: your chance of winning the lottery is equal to the chance of catching a goldfish in an Olympic-sized pool while swimming blindfolded, or equal to your chance of picking out the grain of sand that I pre-selected from a sandbox.
There is near consensus (and here) among economists that state-sponsored lotteries are fundamentally a regressive tax on the poor, because the poor tend to buy a disproportionate amount of lottery tickets, especially relative to their income. Considering the odds of winning, then, we can conclude that the lottery entices primarily poor people with the false hope of becoming rich. Payis goes on to assuage gamblers’ regrets by touting the use of the revenues for public projects (which, I would argue, should have otherwise been built with public funding based on a fair tax system).
We can do something
Millions of customers and potential customers, many who scarcely have the money to throw away on a 1 in 8 million chance of winning a jackpot, are subject to a barrage of advertising convincing them to do just that. One potential solution is to end state-sponsored gambling in Israel.
If that seems to be too far-fetched, then perhaps we can start by banning advertising for this anti-social and regressive activity. Researchers have shown that lottery advertising is fundamentally deceptive in that potential customers do not understand the extremely low odds that they will actually win. While all advertising pushes the limit of the positive characteristics of their product and try to hide any negative ramifications, lottery advertising, with its particular appeal to sell dreams to poor people, is particularly deceiving.
There is another bright side to regulating against lottery advertising: will anyone really miss the morning radio ad with Ariella calling other people to tell them they won or, the bouncing color balls with the squeaky voices, or the TV ad of the guy who decided to buy himself a yacht instead of helping the child facing the bulldozer? I won’t.