The Lottery and Its Marketing

In Shirley Jackson’s Lottery, the action takes place on a single day, June 27th, in an unnamed bucolic small town. During this one day, villagers gather in the central square to take part in the town’s annual lottery. Children recently on summer break are the first to assemble, engaging in that stereotypically normal behavior of small-town kids hanging out together. Soon adult men and women begin to likewise assemble, chattering about their families and their jobs. They are gathered in the center of the square around a black wooden box that has become imbued with “a sense of tradition conferred by its being made up of pieces from the original [lottery] paraphernalia.”

The story goes on to describe how the lottery operates: ticket purchasers select numbers and then wait to see if they match those drawn. If they do, they win a sum of money. The larger the prize, the more numbers matched. But the narrator makes it clear that the odds are long. He or she also points out that people do not purchase tickets to improve their lives; they buy them because they like gambling. It’s an activity that’s fun and exciting, and it gives them a chance to spend their money in a way that makes them happy.

A key to the lottery’s success is that it is promoted as a way to help the poor. This argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when state governments are looking for ways to raise revenues without raising taxes or cutting public programs. In fact, the argument is so successful that state lotteries often gain broad support even when a government’s objective fiscal condition is healthy.

Once a lottery is established, it usually draws in a large number of participants and its revenue can rise rapidly. But over time, revenues tend to level off or even decline. To increase or maintain revenues, a lottery must introduce new games. It’s at this point that the marketing of the lottery becomes problematic, because it promotes a form of gambling that is likely to have negative consequences for the poor, problem gamblers and others.

The narrator in the story criticizes the villagers for their behavior, and it’s hard not to agree. They are displaying an irrational belief in their chances of winning the lottery, and they have lost sight of the fact that the prize they’re buying is nothing more than a piece of paper. In the end, the narrator points out that the winner must hire a financial team (including a lawyer for estate planning and a certified public accountant for tax preparation) and make wise choices about how to spend the money. This is a reminder that no matter how idyllic it looks, there can be evil lurking even in small, seemingly peaceful places. This is a lesson that should not be forgotten.