“Believe in Something Bigger.” The slogan of Powerball takes aim at a materialistic public but draws on language religious in tone. In essence the lottery commands us to believe in a higher power but replaces transcendence with quantity, appealing to conventional aspirations while steering clear of potential blasphemy. Hats off to the admen who have encapsulated the spirit of popular faith in America today. If money is the God of our time, the God we once knew has been demoted to an accountant or spokesman, employed to raise funds and justify political positions. In this light, lottery winners represent the miracles of the modern day.
But isn’t this all a bit much? Isn’t the lottery just for fun? Who hasn’t bought a ticket or two? We can kid ourselves about the odds of winning, but let’s not kid ourselves about the nature of the game. Serious implications await the winners. This is not a friendly or recreational wager. This is a prayer for financial and political power. Convinced that individual happiness relies on these mechanisms, we continue to believe despite evidence to the contrary which streams into our media-saturated lives on a daily basis. That’s the news, we say. Or: that’s entertainment.
In a recent ad campaign, Powerball illustrates just how serious the game has become by associating itself with famous historical images: the lunar landing, the woman’s suffrage movement, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall (see below). Utilizing a forceful approach reminiscent of communist propaganda posters, the campaign distorts the past with a promise for the future. Images documenting individual empowerment are removed from the context of collective effort. Inspirational stories of human struggle are linked to an institution that produces isolated examples of gross self-preservation. And themes of overcoming obstacles in the name of freedom are reduced to a few bouncing balls. In one fell swoop, the popular lottery manages a perversion of faith, the individual, and culture at large.
Calling egocentric fantasies belief and aligning those sentiments with turning points in history reveals a deep misunderstanding and despair. Hitting a jackpot is not synonymous with performing a heroic act. On the contrary, lottery ticket sales serve as a barometer of our desperation. One almost forgets that our nation was founded on principles inherited from the Age of Reason. Today an irrational purchase can catapult a member of the masses into the upper reaches of the One Percent, a sliver of society that many blame but most just envy. Consequently, institutions based on gambling continue to thrive as do the wealthiest Americans. The widespread dream of becoming rich ensures the safety of a plutocracy under the guise of a democratic nation.