Does this sound like a marketing challenge? Convince a huge share of consumers to buy an item with no tangible value whatsoever. And do it habitually. In return, they receive no product, service or experience. The item literally isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Actually, it’s easy. Oh, to be a marketer for the lottery.

Lotteries are in the news, for a few reasons.

One is Lotto Max. The $70 million jackpot, after going unclaimed for weeks, finally had a pair of winners. If I was one of them, I’d be writing my farewell blog instead of this one.

The good news? I also wasn’t hit by lightning, struck by a meteor or attacked by a hippo this week, which are all more likely to happen than winning the jackpot, says Credit Canada.

According to OLG (Ontario Gaming and Lottery Corporation), the odds of winning Lotto Max with a single play is 1 in 33.2 million. That makes the odds of winning Lotto 6/49 – 1 in 14 million – look like a solid bet.

Feeling good that your lucky numbers will come up? As OLG itself says, picture the odds of winning 6/49 like this. Put the names of everyone in Ontario into a hat, then have one chance to pull out your own name. For Lotto Max, make that just about everyone in Canada.

The math doesn’t dissuade people. OLG reports that 54% of Ontario adults have bought a lottery ticket in the past 12 months, and 38% are current players (having bought at least once in the past two months). About 1 in 7 Ontario adults are what OLG calls “core” players, buying lottery tickets once a week or more.

Irrational spending? A chance to dream? Depends how you look at it. Either way, lottery players sure are loyal consumers.

In reaching them, lottery marketers must follow strict standards. Depicting the excitement or fantasy of winning is fine. However:

  • No appealing to minors.
  • No implying that the chances of winning increase the longer you play or the more you spend.
  • No suggesting peer pressure to gamble.
  • And no promoting playing the lottery as an alternative to employment, a financial investment, or a requirement for financial security.

Not every consumer gets the last part.

Pollara once reported that 34% of Canadians surveyed hoped to win the lottery to finance their retirement. Another survey by STASH, a personal finance app, found that 31% of Americans don’t invest because they think it’s risky. But 39% (including 59% of millennials) think it’s prudent to view the lottery as a potential route to retirement. In fact, the survey showed that for 18% of Americans winning the lottery is their only retirement plan.

Playing for health, not wealth

Why not take a shot? That’s how many lottery players think. Which brings me to the other lotteries in the news: COVID-19 vaccine lotteries.

As part of the drive to get more jabs in arms, Ohio, Colorado, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, Delaware and Oregon all have vaccination incentive prizes. The lottery prizes vary, from college scholarships (for children) to $1 million for adults.

Some Canadian provinces are following suit. Manitoba is also offering a cash and scholarships lottery, and Alberta is offering cash, travel prizes from Air Canada and WestJet, and admission to the Calgary Stampede. Quebec is thinking about it.

Do these programs work? In Ohio, vaccination rates increased 33% in the week after the state announced its Vax-a-Million lottery.

Whether we’re talking retail consumers or health consumers, motivations can be complex. The chance of a prize might sway some of the vaccine hesitant and not others.

For instance, these lotteries might not be persuasive for people who focus more on losses than gains. That’s what Nichole Lighthall, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, explained to ABC News. The actual gain in this case is not getting sick. But if you’re not sick now, the gain is theoretical. If you have anxiety about the shot or side effects, those are actual losses.

Lighthall said that when comparing that guaranteed loss to the risk of getting infected, some people “prefer to take the risk of possibly getting COVID as opposed to something they are sure will happen, like needles or feeling uncomfortable.”

So vaccine lotteries might not make a difference to some. However, she says they might for others who feel they now have more to gain – a cash prize (go figure).

Robert Williams, a professor of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge, and a coordinator at the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, told ABC that vaccine lotteries are actually a clever strategy. Why? He said anyone who’s hesitant to get vaccinated because they fear unlikely events might be the perfect target for vaccine lotteries.

“If you can convince yourself you have a realistic possibility of winning the lottery, you may be the same kind of person who has an unrealistic view of blood clots,” Williams said.

The more we can push vaccination rates higher, the better for all of us. In a vaccine lottery, unlike Lotto Max, everyone wins.

Still, I don’t love the idea of vaccine lotteries. An article in Wired echoed my feelings:

“Maybe it doesn’t sit well with you, the idea that public health officials are resorting to, let’s be honest, hucksterish means to drive crowds toward a scientifically wondrous shot that prevents a potentially fatal disease. You would think the big prize would be ‘not dying’.”

When it comes to COVID-19, you really don’t want your number to come up. Here’s the thing. If you’ve made it through the pandemic intact and have the chance to get a safe and effective vaccine, produced in record time, you’ve already hit the jackpot.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

June 23, 2021

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