Am I the only one who is repulsed by the New York State Lottery selling a $5 Mother's Day ticket?
It's not so much the fact that it's a sloppily inept marketing idea, unless your objective is to end up in a Jay Leno monologue:
"And did you see that New York State is pushing a $5 lottery ticket as a Mother's Day Gift? Seriously. I mean, is there a better way to show what a loser she brought up? And what do you write on the card that goes with it? 'Dear Mom, Thanks for everything you've done for me. If you win, buy yourself a six-pack. If you lose, tough crap."
The deeper problem is that it's a reminder that state lotteries are an ethically bankrupt practice.
It's no secret that these lotteries disproportionately prey upon the most vulnerable segments of society. And that's long been the argument against them: That society should have better, less lose/win ways of funding education than reaching into the pockets of the vulnerable.
After all, it's not exactly Goldman Sachs bankers who are waiting in line to buy the Mega-Millions scratch-off. (They prefer to gamble with your money.)
There was always something that stunk about this, but it's particularly noisome now. Because the very concept of generating revenue through lotteries flies smack in the face of the unfolding philosophical approach that is coming to define the Obama administration's approach to social policy.
Specifically, Obama and his people believe in the use of positive incentives to change behavior and encourage people to act in their best interests, recognizing that we are not rational actors.
They're studying the fascinating discipline of behavioral economics, which recognizes that we are not rational actors - the homo economicus who is at the center of traditional economic theory.
Because our brains were wired to succeed in more primitive times than those in which we live, behavioral economics peers into the illogical ways we approach decisions, and the damage that grows out of them.
The Obama-ites are looking to researchers like Dan Ariely, author of the wisely provocative "Predictably Irrational" to see how government can better understand human behavior - and then create incentives to encourage us to overcome our brain-kit resistance and act in our best interests.
There's a fascinating story on this in a recent issue of the "New Republic." Titled "Nudge-ocracy" - as a nod to the Richard Thaler/Cass Sunstein book "Nudge" - it gives examples, from getting toxic assets off the books of our financial institutions, to health care, where gently nudging people in the right direction, versus heavy-handed state intervention, are at the heart of the Obama-ites' approach.
Lotteries rely on the opposite motivational tack. They succeed only by getting people to act against their best interests.
Sadly, encouraging bad behavior isn't hard to do. And state lotteries spend a lot of money, and hire some really smart marketing people, to make sure they succeed at it - by appealing to our most self-destructive, primitive emotions.
Lottery advertising uses cues that ignite fantasy thinking, super-charging our reward centers and dopamine pathways with biochemically addictive responses that millions literally find impossible to resist - because evolution has made us totally vulnerable to them.
What's more, the emerging discipline of neuromarketing allows these grand manipulators to look directly inside our wetware and see which messages light up which regions of the brain. It proves that advertising goes deep into our neurons.
We also know from genetic work that there are people who are pre-disposed to gambling, risk-taking and other self-injuring behaviors. Making it all the more unethical to tempt them.
Interestingly, the New York State Lottery isn't shy about acknowledging that they are in the illusion-creation business. Their website states:
"The New York Lottery's sole mission is to earn revenue for education. Fundamentally, the Lottery is run as an entertainment business."
I know that state governments are choking on debt and cutting back on services, so this isn't the best of times to make the argument that the lottery must go.
Then again, perhaps this is the perfect time. We have a president who is taking a fresh look at conventional wisdom, and believes in the salutary powers of Washington.
In super-hero speak, shouldn't our government be using its powers for good, and not for evil?
And if we are so desperate for education funds, I propose an incentive-based standard for gambling that Ariely would love.
If your credit card debt is less than 10% of your income, you can participate in the dazzling, seductive world of federally-sponsored online gambling - run by, of course a Gambling Czar - with everything from $5 scratch-offs to high-stakes poker.
If you earn $30,000 and owe five grand to Visa, you'll be inspired to reduce your credit card debt if you want to play.
Moving from a lose/win to a win/win is just the kind of nudge we need.