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December 5, 2012

House of Burgess: Players win and winners play

Don’t be fooled by Facebook hoax

By last Wednesday afternoon, the majority of the adults with whom I interacted had procured at least one Powerball lottery ticket. The $587.5 million jackpot was the highest ever for the Powerball, and I certainly had my $2 ticket.

But even as the prize money exploded, the odds of winning remained steadfastly astronomical. Each Powerball ticket purchased has 1 chance in 175,223,510 of being a winner. (Spoiler alert: I did not win.) That number, along with the potential winnings, can’t be accurately understood by the human mind. There is no practical context for these numbers. Even the concept of a million of something is too much for most people to wrap their minds around. I know a million is a thousand sets of a thousand, but just trying to think about each individual piece of that equation makes my head hurt.

Looking back over the last calendar year, I estimate I’ve spent in the neighborhood of $11 on lottery tickets. That’s not counting the $4 I won by getting two numbers right once. (Even so, I’m still down $7.) Like many others, I only deign to purchase a single ticket when the jackpot soars to record-breaking levels. And if that seems to be happening with greater and greater frequency, there’s a reason. Starting in January, the price of a Powerball ticket rose from $1 to $2. And that change leads to a positive feedback loop: the more money in the system, the more people like me jump in the mix once the prize reaches a certain amount.

“Can the jackpot in the new game hit $1 billion? In this game design, it is predicted to happen about once in 10 years,” Chuck Strutt, director of Multi-State Lottery Association, told USA Today’s Gary Strauss in February, after the change in price.

While last week’s Powerball drawing was historic for its jackpot, it was also groundbreaking for another reason. It represented the first time I observed friends on Facebook sharing pictures of Powerball tickets posted by radio stations from around the country. If the tickets pictured won the jackpot, the stations in question promised to split the winnings with everyone who shared the photo before the numbers were drawn.

“95 WIIL Rock, a Wisconsin/Illinois station, has nearly 54,000 shares on its ticket — a staggering number considering the station’s Facebook page has only 10,700 likes,” reported Alex Fitzpatrick of Mashable in the hours before the drawing. “102.3 WBAB, a Long Island, N.Y. classic rock station, has nearly 3,000 shares on its ticket. The station itself, meanwhile, has only 15,000 likes.”

From a marketing standpoint, the return-on-investment ratio is totally understandable. A $2 ticket generating thousands of views is a pretty great deal for the radio station. Nonetheless, this behavior is in complete violation of Facebook’s guidelines for business pages.

“You must not use Facebook features or functionality, such as the Like button, as a voting mechanism for a promotion,” state the rules.

This concept was taken a step further after the numbers were announced. A man named Nolan Daniels posted a Photoshopped picture of himself on Facebook holding what appeared to be the winning ticket.

“Looks like I won’t be going to work EVER!!!! Share this photo and I will give a random person 1 million dollars!” wrote Daniels in the caption.

As of this writing, Daniels’ phony winning ticket is the most shared photo in Facebook’s history, with 1.8 million people falling for the hoax, according to the Savannah Morning News. In reality, a Missouri couple split the prize with another as-yet-unnamed winner who purchased a ticket in Arizona.

“In the comments section below the fake photo, Daniels claimed he had consulted legal counsel to protect his newfound financial interests and that ‘[a]nyone who doubts the legitimacy of this photo will not be included in the 1 million dollar drawing,’” reported the International Business Times.

Oh, well. I guess I won’t be buying my own island or that pet giraffe just yet.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.

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