I loathe scratch-offs.
I recognize that’s not exactly the most charitable way to start this off — and really, it’s not even the thrust of the column — but I just want to be clear from where I’m coming from: I loathe scratch-offs.
Not because they’re not fun. They’re fun. Who doesn’t like taking a quarter — gotta be a quarter, right? — and sloooooooowly scratching off that magic silver dust to reveal what might be a fortune. Or two bucks. Or, most likely, nothing. It’s fun. No denying it.
So why the hate? Because the odds are so, so, so, so terrible, and unless you go searching, you’d never know. Generally speaking, for the $1 or $2 scratchers your ROI is 60%, and for the $5 and up scratchers it’s 70%. (I also hate when people call them “scratchers.” They’re usually the same people that refer to their grandchildren as their “grandbabies.”)
Let me repeat that: You can expect between 60 and 70 cents return for every dollar you spend on scratch-offs.
TIL that there are folks on TikTok who do scratch-offs live and have thousands of subscribers 🤮🤮
— Handy Dandy Andy (@amjerrick) October 27, 2022
That’s disgusting. For online casino slots, the return is typically between 95-97%. In blackjack, depending on the specific table rules, if you make the mathematically correct decisions, it returns in the neighborhood of 99.5%. In sports betting, with standard odds, the player is paying a 4.54% vig.
And the facts about scratch-offs are near-impossible to find on any state lottery website. It’s generally easy to find the “one in every four games is a winner!” information, but for ROI? You have to click through numerous screens and scan the fine print — if you can even find it.
I’m generally not a pearl-clutcher, I lean Libertarian on most topics, and I certainly — and obviously — do when it comes to gambling. But I also think the states should be a little more forthright about the actual, horrible odds they’re offering.
So I do come at this with some bias. Fair warning.
And … you know what else these state lotteries should be doing? They should stop taking on games that appeal to kids.
Case in point: I literally sat up and pointed at the TV like Leo DiCaprio when I saw this commercial for the Pennsylvania Lottery’s Addams Family scratch-off.
It’s a cartoon, guys. And it’s trying to sell scratchers. My parents’ grandbabies sure do seem to be the target audience, and I gotta say: It’s altogether ooky.
From the maker
“It’s a really good question, quite frankly,” said Jeffrey Schweig, the president of Alchemy3, the company that created the game. “The Addams Family is a very interesting property. I’m going to be 62. I grew up watching the 1960s series, but it started out as an adult cartoon in The New Yorker in the 1930s. My uncle used to love reading them, and I would read them, and when the show came out in the ’60s, it was really fun.
“It’s always had this history of going back and forth between animation and live action,” Schweig continued. “So it’s not the first time animated movies have come out. There was a series in the 1970s that was animated, and again in the ’90s. Very interesting how they reinvent the property.”
Schweig pointed out his job — as dictated by the lotteries themselves — is to try and bring new people into the scratch-off fold. And games that feature nostalgia can help do that.
“Lotteries like us to do a variety of games,” he said. “Some consumers just enjoy basic lotto play, but a lot of people are into whimsical tickets, and this certainly qualifies.”
This isn’t the first time lotteries have used “kid” stuff to sell scratch-offs. Willy Wonka comes to mind, as does Santa Claus. Why?
Problem gaming authorities worry
“The gambling industry in general and the lottery industry in particular has often used nostalgia as themes for games,” said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “Some of these are series or images that were originally for children that were aired as children’s programs, obviously some are cartoons, and so the argument has been that after a certain amount of time, the people that watch show as kids, now that they are adults, and it’s OK to use the same imagery.”
OK, fine, devil’s advocate. I’ll allow it. Nostalgia is great, sure, go ahead, use my childhood memories to sell scratch-offs.
But here’s the thing with this one in particular: For today’s kids, all they know of The Addams Family is from those two cartoon movies, the first of which was released in 2019. No one is nostalgic for 2019. (Well, I mean, I guess we all kind of are, back before deadly pandemics and such, but you get the point.)
Do I think my kids are going to become problem gamblers because of some commercial they will probably never see? I do not. But it’s the principal of the whole thing.
“Even if you make the argument that the target audience is adults, or that when the show aired the people that watched it are now adults, it ignores the fact that if it was created to appeal to kids, it will still appeal to kids,” Whyte said. “We think there’s a heightened risk in using themes that were originally intended to appeal for children. The industry disagrees, clearly.”
Truth be told, it’s a fine line between what’s good and what’s not good when it comes to this.
Schweig said the lotteries would never touch Scooby-Doo, for instance, or even The Flintsones, which was a prime-time show more or less geared toward adults, and 8-year-olds who watched it when it first came out in 1960 are now 70 years old.
“The Flintstones have been around for generations, but the lotteries won’t touch the product because there’s still children’s products out there, the vitamins, the cereals, and so forth,” Schweig said. “They won’t touch it. Lotteries are very hyper-conscious of this.”
Furthermore, Schweig points out the marketing for the last batch of Addams Family movies was geared toward adults, including partnerships with Realtor.com, Progressive.com, Amazon, and T-Mobile in an effort to stoke that nostalgia with parents of today’s kids.
Pennsylvania Lottery responds
It’s not just Pennsylvania that’s offering the Addams Family cartoon scratch-offs, but geographically speaking, that’s where I’m seeing the commercials. So I reached out to see what they thought of the issue.
They’re creepy and they’re kooky … and all together fun! Visit your nearest Nebraska Lottery retailer and pick up a $5 The Addams Family Fortune Scratch ticket with a $50,000 top prize! pic.twitter.com/fgVIbl36xl
— Nebraska Lottery (@NE_Lottery) July 27, 2021
They were not amused.
“The Pennsylvania Lottery is very proactive and mindful in game design to ensure tickets do not appeal to minors,” read the email I received. “Our The Addams Family of games do not feature any children, and it’s also important to note that all of our tickets and advertising contain the message: ‘Players must be 18 or older.’ We also know that many adults enjoy this classic movie.”
Well, true enough. Wednesday and Pugsley are not featured in the commercials or on the scratch-offs themselves, and we’ve already covered the nostalgia angle, and of course everyone needs to be 18 or older to play, and — and that sound you just heard was Keith Whyte busting through my wall, Kool-Aid man style.
“At the very least,” Whyte said, “a lottery that’s going to use themes like The Addams Family has a massive obligation to make sure they have airtight age controls around the sale and distribution of the tickets, that they’re not using media that kids can be exposed to, and that they’re doing heightened responsible gambling campaigns around these efforts.
“And I think most lotteries fail at all three. We know there’s a very high rate of youth access to lottery tickets — in most states, they’re sold in vending machines. We know much of the media around the lottery is distributed widely, billboards, commercials, YouTube, that sort of thing. And we don’t see any evidence about responsible gaming campaigns tied to this topic.”
He ain’t wrong.
Well, enough screaming into the wind for one day. I have some actual responsible gaming to do that does not involve these silly scratch-offs. My 12-leg single game parlays don’t build themselves, you know.