I recently was drawn into the world of sweepstakes gambling where I found such a clever example of deception that, even though the overall enterprise is fairly tawdry, I had to admire the wiliness of its inventors. And having seen the art of distraction made so routine, I had to suspect that it probably infuses our lives in more ways than we think.
Sweepstakes gambling is a way to bring video slot machines into states where slots are illegal. To pull this off and stay one step ahead of the law, the operators rely on a kind of double bookkeeping. In a room full of slot machines, they sell phone cards. The customers take the cards, punch the card number into a machine and start playing — betting as little as eight cents a spin. Old ladies with blue hair and codgers in golf shirts while away the hours in play. When they burn through the points on their cards, they get cash back for any points they’ve won — generally less than they paid to get started — put more cash on their card and play on.
The game owners’ legal dodge is they say they are in the business of selling phone cards and the games are just an amusing come-on to boost sales. And here’s the trick. Every time they put money on their card, those customers are actually racking up hundreds of hours of phone minutes, a service of real value which they totally ignore.
What they want is to play slot machines and the entire operation invites them to think that is all they are doing. The reality of the minutes of phone time is pushed so far to the back of anyone’s mind, it ceases to exist in any practical sense.
In the manner of stage magicians, the operators have made a business of deception. They send our attention elsewhere while they work the trick right under our noses.
This works because of the collusion between the trickster and us. He knows why we are in the room. We go to be entertained, to be distracted from the ordinariness of life and with that desire, as much as we might say we hope to unravel the trick, we are ripe for his swagger and flourishes.
This sweepstakes gambling business makes money by the fistfuls because it gives people what they want and takes their money one bite at a time. Before you know it, you’ve lost hundreds of dollars. In this, I don’t think it’s too much different from other enterprises, whether that’s in commerce, finance, religion or politics.
Each realm is filled with many vendors who are skilled in selling us what we want and they draw our attention to one place while they do their real work elsewhere. They might sell us status or national pride or a sense of superior virtue. Much money and time is frittered away and sometimes there is buyer’s remorse but few people are truly duped. All you have are people who paid a higher price than they expected.
Readers of this blog don’t really need this reminder but it’s always good to ask ourselves, why am I in this room and what am I buying?