RALEIGH — You've seen them and heard them.
The cheesy game show character. The singing chorus. The ubiquitous billboards touting a big, life-changing jackpot. No one is immune from the state lottery's advertising efforts. And with good reason: In the last fiscal year, the lottery spent $10.9 million on advertising.
Spending records released through a public records request show that lottery officials seek to blanket the state's airwaves and dot its highways with the messages: Buy tickets that will benefit education and play responsibly.
"Awareness is key for increasing sales, which is key for raising money for education," said Tom Shaheen, executive director of the N.C. Education Lottery. "It's a presence of mind. People don't just decide they're going to buy lottery tickets. Something has to trigger that."
The lottery doesn't study the particular effects its ads have on consumer behavior. That would take more money, and the lottery's advertising budget is limited by law to 1 percent of gross ticket sales.
Shaheen says he's pretty sure the ads are working. Sales in fiscal year 2009 were 20 percent higher than in 2008, and advertising likely played a big part in that increase, he said. One man who won a big prize from the scratch-off ticket based on wrestler and North Carolina icon Ric Flair told Shaheen he bought a ticket because he saw the game's commercial featuring Flair.
Spending records show that in 2008 and 2009, the lottery focused ads most often on new scratch-off tickets, such as a Monopoly-themed game or a game that featured Harley Davidson motorcycles as a prize. Powerball ads were assembled when the jackpot reached the hundreds of millions.
The constant churning of new games and new ads is designed to keep players hooked, said Bill Brooks, president of the conservative N.C. Family Policy Council, which opposed the lottery.
"I see through the ads to the underbelly of gambling," Brooks said. "The legislature could say, 'We're not going to spend any money on advertising,' and that could mean more money could go to whatever needy purpose."
Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal-leaning N.C. Policy Watch, said the advertising spent to encourage lottery players would be no different than the state creating ads to sell more liquor, which is taxed by the state.
The lottery spent $928,000 creating its ads for the year. Getting those commercials and radio spots in front of eyes and ears cost a lot more.
Buying time on radio stations cost $2.1 million, including buys specifically targeting smaller market and minority-owned stations that might reach customers outside of the major markets.
Television buys of $5.9 million included broadcast and cable. The lottery spent $81,000 for a sponsorship on Fox Sports South.
Brooks said the lottery should not be placing ads with sporting events, where children are sure to see them.
"It just pushes that message out to a younger generation: that gambling is normal and it's what everybody does," Brooks said.
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