The ad starts with a soft choral singing of “California Dreaming,” and small white balls falling out of the sky like snowflakes onto sequoia forests, the Golden Gate bridge, downtown Los Angeles, the beach. Regular folks look up in wonder, enjoying the “snowfall” until one man joyously finds a red ball in his hand. The screen cuts away to the pseudo-religious phrase “Believe in something bigger,” and the purpose of the ad: California Lottery Powerball with jackpots starting at $40 million.
The TV spot, along with billboards that include moving images of the woman’s suffrage movement, the moon landing, and the fall of the Berlin wall with just the word “Believe” in the corner, has been criticized by commentators as tricking citizens—especially the poor—into believing a lie. The odds of hitting the Powerball’s 6-number jackpot are more than 175 million to one.
Ad agency David&Goliath expands on its campaign saying the phrase “isn’t just a tagline, it's a mindset—one that inspires people to think beyond what's possible. To be part of a movement of optimism and larger-than-life dreams, and to serve as a filter for the Lottery and the people who play.”
And often those who fall for this optimism are those who need the money the most. A PBS report last year found that households that earn less than $13,000 a year spend 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets. Those who feel poor buy twice as many lottery tickets.
“Lotteries set off a vicious cycle that not only exploits low-income individuals’ desires to escape poverty but also directly prevents them from improving upon their financial situations,” a 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business noted.
On writer on Breitbart points out that with California’s high unemployment rate, high taxes, and billions in debt, “there’s a better shot at winning the Powerball than there is of the current California government getting citizens a real shot at prosperity.”
James Poulos writes in Forbes that the most destructive part of the ad campaign is the state’s attempt to bring a spiritual side to the lottery. He points to the paradox that those who believe in “lottery-ism” are the least likely to use those winnings to make incredible things happen: “Discerning Christians, Buddhists, and others would point out that life is more than large enough already; that optimism is irrelevant when you are present to the possibility of grace and the fullness of life; and that, conceptually, lottery-ism asks us to project our image-creating nature onto a surface where it can never gain purchase—unless, of course, Fate and Chance ‘smile’ upon us.”
And so, perhaps the answer is to believe in something bigger than what the ads refers to—the millions of dollars in winnings, the state of California, the empty promises of wealth—and look to the One who can redeem all the poor, ordinary things in our lives, including ourselves, and make them of greater value than all the money in the world.