MONEY Leisure

Why a Hyped New Lottery Game Went Bust in a Hurry

The "Monopoly Millionaire's Club" lottery launch at Times Square on October 20, 2014 in New York City.
The "Monopoly Millionaire's Club" lottery launch at Times Square on October 20, 2014 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images

A new Monopoly-themed lottery game was expected to be popular enough to warrant its own TV show. But the game has already been killed after flopping with lottery players, who often had no clue if they won or lost.

State lottery sales have largely gone flat at the same time that much of the country has come to rely more and more on the revenues sanctioned gambling provides. To boost sales, state lottery commissions are constantly trying to capture the imagination (and dollars) of players by rolling out exciting new games. As one economist explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past summer, a lottery game “follows a life cycle like any product… You get this increase in sales. It peaks. People get used to it, and then you get this slowdown.”

Hence the need to regularly create and market new lottery games, like the Monopoly Millionaires Club, introduced in 23 states in October as the first multi-state lottery game to hit the scene in 12 years. At the time, state lottery commission press releases (like one published for Arizona) and news outlets in participating states (such as New Jersey) had trouble explaining all of the game’s particulars. It was a “two-pronged game,” but with potentially multiple winners and “three different ways to win a million dollars,” and each ticket came with a series of numbers as well as a traditional Monopoly property, like Marvin Gardens or B&O Railroad. Anyone with a ticket matching all six numbers would win the jackpot (starting at $15 million), and when a jackpot was awarded, other randomly selected players would win $1 million apiece. But if nobody won the jackpot, nobody else was eligible to win $1 million either.

Oh, and players were supposed to enter an online sweepstakes to win a trip to Las Vegas to be on the associated TV show, to be hosted by Billy Gardell (Mike on “Mike & Molly”), where more millions could be awarded. And each ticket cost a pricey $5. “This $5 price point strengthens the game’s play value while differentiating it within lottery draw game portfolios,” the Arizona press release explained. Whatever that means.

From the get-go, people were puzzled. “Monopoly Millionaires’ Club is like a cross between Powerball, the Pennsylvania Lottery’s Millionaire Raffle, and McDonald’s Monopoly game, which makes people collect various game pieces,” one Philadelphia Inquirer writer summed up. “Plus, there’s a TV show,” and unlike popular scratch-off lottery tickets, “there’s nothing ‘instant’ about” about the Monopoly game. While it could possibly pay off big-time for players, the game was so confusing it might “set records for people who fail to realize they won, as well as people who mistakenly think they did.”

Turns out people don’t like confusing lottery games involving delayed gratification, and they certainly don’t like forking over $5 a pop to play such games. Citing “sales that have not met the lottery industry’s projections,” Texas announced last week that it was suspending the Monopoly game, and all other states followed suit recently. By December 26, the game will disappear nationally. To borrow from Monopoly lingo, this game is going indefinitely to jail. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200—or any amount.

MONEY Leisure

Great Ways to Spend Black Friday Not at the Mall

One of the contraptions. The 16th Annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction Event held at MIT, featuring 34 teams and their Rube Goldberg machines.
One of the contraptions. The 16th Annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction Event held at MIT, featuring 34 teams and their Rube Goldberg machines. Jonathan Wiggs—Boston Globe via Getty Images

Who says you must go shopping on Black Friday? Here's a roundup of suggestions for fun, worthwhile events that take place on the notoriously crazed shopping day—but don't involve shopping at all.

It’s understandable if you plan to steer clear of the mall on November 28, a.k.a. the day after Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Black Friday. A confusing, contradictory string of consumer polls suggests that “only” 11%, or perhaps as many as 28% of Americans will physically go shopping in stores on the day. Even if the true figure is at the low end of the spectrum, it’ll still mean millions and millions of people clogging shopping centers across the land. The National Retail Federation estimated that 141 individual consumers made shopping purchases last year during the Thanksgiving weekend. The majority of the purchases were made in person (not online), and as expected, Black Friday was the weekend’s biggest day for sales.

The point is that there are literally millions and millions of reasons why you might want to consider not going to the mall on Friday. Add in the fact that deal-tracking experts argue that smart shoppers should probably skip Black Friday because, with the exception of a few amazing-but-limited doorbuster deals, stores don’t have their best prices this day, and we’re left with one overarching but illogical reason why people are compelled to shop on the day: They go not in spite of the crowds and the crazed, competitive atmosphere but because of it. In certain circles, Black Friday is considered the “Super Bowl” of shopping, or a “blood sport” of consumerism if you will, and there are shoppers out there who can’t pass up the action—even if it ruins Thanksgiving because Black Friday now starts on Thursday for most national retailers.

In any event, if you decide to not go shopping on Black Friday, congratulations. You pass the sanity test. But just because you sit Black Friday out in terms of shopping doesn’t mean you have to sit at home the whole day. Here are some suggestions for the day that don’t involve elbowing a desperate mom out of the way to get the last cheap TV or video game console in a store:

Parades and Holiday Lights
Portland (OR), Seattle, Estes Park at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and San Antonio are among the many spots that traditionally host parades on the day after Thanksgiving. The latter is a nighttime floating parade that spectators view from San Antonio’s River Walk (tickets are necessary), and the elaborate floats feature tens of thousands of lights. Black Friday is also the day that the flip is switched on for the season for holiday light displays in places such as Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Coat Exchanges
In honor of Buy Nothing Day, an anti-consumerism event timed to coincide with Black Friday, charity organizers launched a coat exchange years ago on the day in Rhode Island. Nowadays, coats are gathered and given away all over the state on Black Friday, and similar coat exchange programs have popped up in Utah, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Museums (and Drinks!)
Museums around the country give visitors extra reason to absorb some culture and knowledge—both in short supply at the nation’s malls—with special events and discounts on Black Friday. For instance, Miami’s Frost Museum of Science has two-for-one admissions on November 28, while from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. the Oakland Museum of California waives admission for kids and offers half-price entrance and drink specials in the beer garden for those of age. In Milwaukee, the Harley-Davidson Museum is hosting its third annual Black Friday Beerfest, with samples from dozens of craft brewers on hand.

F.A.T. Chain Reaction
Every year, an inventive, entertaining, and admittedly geeky event called the Friday After Thanksgiving (F.A.T.) Chain Reaction takes place in the Boston area at the MIT campus. Teams of kids come with elaborate Rube Goldberg/better mousetrap creations made with any materials of their choosing that, like dominos, set off a wild chain reaction of moving pieces that takes between 30 seconds and three minutes to complete. In the end, each team’s creation is linked together in a giant chain reaction to delight the crowd. Tickets are $5 for children ages 5 to 17, and $15 for adults at the door ($12.50 in advance).

Live Sports
We all know that the NFL is the dominant sport for Thanksgiving Day. The day after, however, has increasingly become a hot day for the other two major pro sports being played right now: A dozen NBA games take place on Black Friday 2014 (including a 1 p.m. tipoff of the Chicago Bulls versus the host Boston Celtics), and three of the 11 NHL games scheduled for Friday get underway during family-friendly afternoon times. Plenty of college football games kick off around the country on Friday, November 28, as well.

 

MONEY Leisure

4 New Ways Movie Theaters Are Filling Seats and Upselling Patrons

People relax in all powered recliner seats at AMC Movie Theater in Braintree.
People relax in all powered recliner seats at an AMC Movie Theater. Jonathan Wiggs—Boston Globe via Getty Images

The next time you go to a movie theater, you may be coaxed into spending a little extra money—perhaps for a beer, a toy your kid is begging for, or the right to watch the film you just saw over and over.

Even with the blizzard of ticket sales for Frozen starting the year, 2014 has been less than stellar at the box office, with a summer of few blockbusters and overall sales that are down 4% compared to last year. In previous years, theaters and movie studios have resorted to raising admission prices (often using IMAX or 3D screenings as a justification) as a way to offset declining ticket sales.

However, fewer 3D films are being released lately—at least partly because theatergoers have come to see the technology as a gimmick not worth paying extra for in an otherwise mediocre movie—so theaters and movie studios have had to become more creative in their efforts to fill seats and upsell patrons. Here are a few of the strategies that have popped up recently:

Unlimited Admission Ticket
AMC Theatres and Paramount Pictures are experimenting right now with a special unlimited admission for Christopher Nolan’s three-hour space epic Interstellar that’ll get customers to turn over an extra $15. Like it sounds, the unlimited admission ticket allows filmgoers to see the movie as many times as they like—which could be quite a few times, considering how confusing some have found it to be. Unlimited tickets are on sale for $19.99 to $34.99, depending on location, or customers can pay $14.99 to upgrade a one-time admission into an unlimited one.

Combo Concessions
To boost revenues, theater concessions stands have increasingly been offering combo packages that generally include popcorn, a drink in a collectible cup, and often some kind of toy or figurine related to the movie such as How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Transformers: Age of Extinction. The Hollywood Reporter noted these combos cost theaters about $1.50 apiece, and they’re sold to customers for as much as $7.95. As one executive involved in the creation and licensing of such products explained, the natural reaction children have when seeing such combos is to whine until a parent gives in and buys one: “The kid sees another kid with this toy and says, ‘Hey, I want that, too.'” And the popularity of these offers isn’t limited to children, as one theater food service manager said: “We didn’t think we would see 35-year-old guys with collectible cups with little toys on them, but they love them.”

Booze, Food, Recliners… and Wind
To attract more customers and simultaneously squeeze more money out of them at the same time, theaters have been adding or expanding amenities and special features so that going to the movies is much more of an “experience” than sitting at home watching Netflix. Regal Cinemas has been adding luxury recliners to theaters, and plans to have them in as many as 350 locations by 2015. AMC’s Dine-in Theatres program allows patrons at select locations to grab beer and wine, as well as lunch, dinner, or some snacks while taking in a film, sometimes from the comfort of a recliner. In June, the country’s first 4D theater opened in Los Angeles, with artificial wind, fog, scents, and sensor-equipped seats adding another dimension to 3D films.

Gamer Competitions
In October, three Cinemark theaters boasted “multiple sold-out auditoriums” for special screenings that took place in the middle of the night and charged a premium over the usual movie admission. Most curiously, the screening that drew these crowds into the movie theaters wasn’t a movie at all, but a video game competition, the Riot Games League of Legends Championships, which were being held in South Korea and live-streamed at theaters in Texas, Illinois, and Washington.

MONEY Odd Spending

A Brief History of ‘Pay What You Want’ Businesses

hand holding up quarter
ballyscanlon—Getty Images

A pay-what-you-want investing service? Yes, it's here—and it's hardly the only business bold (crazy?) enough to allow customers to pay whatever they feel is appropriate, even $0.

On November 11, a new investment company called Aspiration launches with the goals of “democratizing the financial services industry,” “making elite investments available to everyday investors,” and “building a movement around the idea that you can make money and make a difference at the same time.” The minimum investment is only $500, and the pitch is that at long last, middle-class investors will get access to the kinds of investment products that traditionally have been available only to the rich. The concept is noble enough, and the focus on regular folks is certainly refreshing, yet Aspiration is hardly the only service out there aiming to woo less affluent investors.

No, what makes Aspiration truly unique—unheard of, in fact—is its fee structure. Or rather, the absence of a fee structure. Instead of charging a fee, Aspiration “allows its customers to decide how much to pay the company – even if that number is zero,” the launch announcement explains. “Aspiration calls this approach ‘Pay What Is Fair’ and while it has been tried before in one-off fashion, this is the first time it has been brought to the investment world and the first time a company has built its business model on this approach.”

Whether such a revolutionary business model can work for investing or is little more than a gimmick is impossible to tell right now. For obvious reasons, “pay what you want” is a curiosity that’s intriguing to consumers and grabs plenty of headlines, but thus far other PWYW experiments have yielded results that are decidely mixed. For example:

Restaurants: Bubby’s, an all-American restaurant with two locations in Manhattan, is running a “Pay Whatever You Like” buffet Thanksgiving dinner with some of the proceeds going to charity, and it’s clear the owners expect customers to pay a pretty penny: There’s a “suggested donation” of $75 per person. Another restaurant, a diner in North Carolina called Just Cookin, recently removed prices from the menu, leaving the exact amount paid for food and service up to the customer and God.

In probably the most well-known PWYW restaurant trial, the fast-casual chain Panera Bread opened a nonprofit café five years ago, and the experiment was so successful that in early 2013 the concept was expanded to four dozen St. Louis locations, which offered turkey chili on a pay-what-you-want basis. Roughly half a year later, however, PWYW chili was removed from menus. Apparently Panera received tons of generous donations early on in the program, but interest (and money collected) faded as time passed. Even so, there are still five nonprofit Panera Cares locations in the U.S., where the menus have suggested donations but no set prices.

Payday App: The biggest problem with payday loans is that while the fees might seem small—say $15 per $100 borrowed—the terms represent the loanshark-like equivalent of an APR of 400%. Enter ActiveHours, a payday loan alternative that pays customers immediately for the hours they’ve already worked and, incredibly, has no mandatory fees.

“We don’t think people should be forced to pay for services they don’t love, so we ask you to pay what you think is fair based on your personal experience,” the ActiveHours site explains. Even so, consumer advocates warn that people who become dependent on such a service are more likely to wind up behind on their bills, and they also might wind up (voluntarily) paying tips to the service that are themselves the equivalent of a loanshark’s terms.

Taxis: In 2009, during perhaps the Great Recession’s darkest days, a former Wall Street banker named Eric Hagen introduced Recession Ride Taxi, a PWYW cab service in Burlington, Vt. Hagen offered rides only on nights and weekends as a way to help people out and perhaps make a few dollars. Even though Uber and other ride-share services would seem to be encroaching on Hagen’s idea, Recession Ride Taxi is still running—and still operating on a PWYW basis.

Book, Music, Comedy Downloads: Way back in 2000, Stephen King decided to skip over publishers and sell a serial novel called “The Plant” strictly in digital e-book format using an honor system. Readers were asked to pay $1 per installment, and King said he would keep writing if three-quarters of those who downloaded the book paid up. At one point, less than half of those downloading were actually paying for the book, and the author never completed it—though the author reportedly earned nearly $500 million in the venture. As things now stand, the six existing parts of “The Plant” are available for free download at King’s website.

In 2007, Radiohead began selling digital downloads of an album called “In Rainbows,” and when fans dropped it into the virtual checkout basket, the only price listed was “It’s Up to You.” Some rock-n-roll old-timers, including KISS’s Gene Simmons, were not impressed. “That’s not a business model that works,” Simmons said at the time. “I open a store and say, ‘Come on in and pay whatever you want.’ Are you on f***ing crack? Do you really believe that’s a business model that works?” Nonetheless, Radiohead’s move was probably ahead of its time considering that few artists make money selling their music nowadays anyway.

More recently, the work of Louis C.K., who over the years has been at the forefront of unorthodox direct-sales strategies including selling comedy special downloads for a flat $5 and comedy show tickets with no intermediaries or fees, was featured in a “Humble Bundle” of comedy albums offered on a pay-what-you-want basis. Humble Bundle is known for bundling together several video games and allowing customers to pay whatever they like for the package, with portions of the payment going to the developers, charity, and Humble Bundle.

MONEY Leisure

Why Theaters Desperately Need You to Go to the Movies This Weekend

Anne Hathaway and Wes Bently in INTERSTELLAR, from Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, in association with Legendary Pictures.
Movie execs are counting on the space explorers of "Interstellar" to pull box-office receipts out of a black hole. Melinda Sue Gordon—Warner Bros.

A lackluster summer at the box office has been followed by a so-so autumn—putting even more pressure on this weekend's two big movie releases to draw in the ticket-buying masses.

The highest-grossing blockbuster of summer 2014 was “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which by Labor Day weekend had pulled in around $256 million at the box office. Yet as Entertainment Weekly pointed out at the time, that total would have put “Guardians” at only #5 on the summer 2013 list had the film come out that year.

The point is: Summer 2014 was a stinker for the film business. During the crucial period from May 2 to Labor Day, the box office total at movie theaters came to around $4 billion, nearly 15% less than the same period in 2013. September fared much better, with the box office up around 4% compared with last year, but overall the industry remains desperately in need of a big hit—or several.

The movie theater company Cinemark released third-quarter results on Thursday, and for the three-month period ending September 30, revenues were down more than $100 million compared with the previous year ($646.9 million versus $757.6 million), even as the average ticket price rose 3% and concessions per patron increased 6.7%. (FYI, the ticket price average was $6.09 and the average spent on concessions was $3.19.) Cinemark partly blamed the World Cup soccer tournament for the poor turnout. Whatever the reason—including, perhaps, the absence of, you know, good movies worth buying tickets for—attendance plummeted from roughly 81 million during Q3 of 2013 to 66 million this year.

Across the industry, box office sales are down 4% thus far in 2014. Time is running out on the movie business’s prayers that the year as a whole won’t be a disappointment. Which is why industry execs may be hoping a turnaround truly takes hold this weekend, when two potential blockbusters from Disney animation and Dark Knight auteur Christopher Nolan—Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, respectively—are released.

As the Los Angeles Times noted, each big-budget film cost about $165 to make, and each stands a decent chance of pulling in more than $50 million at the box office during its debut weekend. If that happens, it would only be the fourth time in history that two new movies opened with $50+ million weekends. And if that happens, it couldn’t come quickly enough for the struggling film industry.

“In the wake of a summer that ended up down 15%, we needed the post-summer period to perform,” Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with the entertainment business research firm Rentrak, told the Los Angeles Times. “Otherwise we were just going to get this negative momentum situation.”

After this weekend’s releases, it looks like it will largely be up to a slew of sequels opening in November and December—from the “Hunger Games,” “Night at the Museum,” and “Hobbit” series, among others—to put patrons in movie theater seats.

MONEY deals

Hells Bells! $6.99 AC/DC Deal Was a Pricing Glitch

AC/DC in concert, 2009.
AC/DC in concert, 2009. Marka—Alamy

For a little while on Tuesday, deal-tracking sites went nuts promoting a download of 290 AC/DC songs for just $6.99. Alas, the offer was too good to be true.

[UPDATE: Apparently, the AC/DC deal at Amazon was a pricing glitch that was never supposed to exist. It’s enough to make you bang your head … in frustration.]

For a long time, AC/DC was a holdout in terms of joining the digital age of music. The Aussie hard-rock band reluctantly joined iTunes only in 2012—with individual song downloads selling for $1.29 apiece and a complete set of albums and box sets available for $150. Today on iTunes, downloads of classic AC/DC albums like “Back in Black” sell for $6.99 each.

Amazingly, $6.99 just so happens to be the price of a special deal just made available at Amazon.com. A download of “AC/DC: The Complete Collection,” which includes nearly 300 versions of songs from 27 of the band’s albums, including “Highway to Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Who Made Who,” and yes, “Back in Black” (among the top 5 best-selling albums of all time) can be purchased right now for only $6.99. “Dirt cheap” indeed!

This special deal popped up surprisingly on Halloween, then disappeared, and now it has resurfaced again. It’s unclear how long the monumental download will be available at the $6.99 price.

If it wasn’t already clear that the music business has changed dramatically in recent years, the new AC/DC deal should hammer that point home like an epic drum solo. We live in an era when it makes sense for U2 to give an album away for “free” (and get grief for it), and when it’s big news when a major artist like Taylor Swift decides that she no longer wants to (more or less) give her music away for free via streaming services such as Spotify.

If Swift and AC/DC have something in common—besides, you know, their mutual affection for wearing short shorts—it’s their steadfast belief in the importance of the album rather than the single song. One reason that AC/DC was reluctant to start selling music digitally (and why it still doesn’t make its music available for streaming services) is that the band believes the best way fans can enjoy its music is to listen to albums in their entirety, rather than hearing one song here and there.

“For us [the album is] the best way,” AC/DC guitarist Angus Young told Sky News in 2010, soon after the Beatles finally allowed their music to be downloaded on iTunes. “We are a band who started off with albums and that’s how we’ve always been. We always were a band that if you heard something [by AC/DC] on the radio, well, that’s only three minutes. Usually the best tracks were on the albums.”

Likewise, in a widely read Wall Street Journal op-ed last summer, Taylor Swift voiced strong opinions on the importance of the album in terms of musicians as both artists and businesspeople:

In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace. Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently.

How will fans react in turn to the decisions by some major artists to not allow their music to be streamed? Will it help sell more albums? We’ll have to wait and see. If selling 27 albums for $6.99 doesn’t help boost a band’s music sales in a big way, probably nothing will.

MONEY Leisure

How Daylight Saving Time Costs You Money

two women looking in shop windows at dusk
Daylight saving: energy conservation measure or Chamber of Commerce conspiracy? Betsie Van Der Meer—Getty Images

The tradeoff for later sunsets during daylight saving time is that you're more likely to be out and about, dropping cash.

At 2 a.m. on Sunday, November 2, the observation of daylight saving time will end and the clocks will “fall back” to the standard time, 1 a.m. Despite the fact that the shift grants the vast majority of Americans a much-welcomed extra hour of sleep, many would prefer to do away with the twice-annual time change.

Arizona and Hawaii already don’t bother with daylight saving time, and it looks like Utah could be next. In an online survey that collected more than 27,000 responses, two-thirds of Utahns favored staying on Mountain Standard Time year-round, like Arizona does. “Convenience really stood out” as a major reason why folks want to get rid of daylight savings, the leader of a government committee studying the topic explained to the Salt Lake Tribune. “People don’t want to move their clocks forward, backward … They just want to set them and leave them.”

OK, so doing away with daylight savings would make life simpler—but only very slightly so, since our computers and smartphones and other gadgets change their clocks automatically. More important, what’s the argument to keep daylight saving observation in place?

Daylight saving time was first embraced during World War I, when the idea was that the spring shift would help conserve coal because people would need less light and heat since they had more daylight during their waking hours. The concept that daylight saving saved on energy costs persisted for decades but has recently been declared patently false. Later sunsets during the warm months mean a higher likelihood that Americans will spend their evenings driving around and doing stuff, meaning more need for gas and air-conditioning during waking hours.

The ability for Americans to be out and about enjoying the later sunset amounts to an economic stimulus, because odds are we’re spending more money when we’re out. Michael Downing, a Tufts University professor and author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Savings, explained to The Takeaway public radio program that the main beneficiaries of daylight saving include the golfing, tourism, and recreation industries—all of which attract more business when there’s more daylight after the traditional work day is done.

For that matter, all manner of shops and small businesses love what’s perceived to be a longer day, because it pushes consumers outside later into the night. “Since 1915, the principal supporter of daylight saving in the United States has been the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of small business and retailers,” said Downing. “The Chamber understood that if you give workers more sunlight at the end of the day they’ll stop and shop on their way home.”

A Tufts blog post noted that in 2005, daylight saving time was expanded from seven to eight months, including the key step of delaying the “fall back” until the first week of November—a move spurred on thanks to pressure from lobbyists supporting candy manufacturers and convenience stores. Why would they want such a change? Kids would get an extra hour of daylight for trick-or-treating, meaning more candy consumption and more candy purchases. Later sunsets for more of the year also mean more people out on the roads needing to swing by convenience stores to gas up or grab snacks.

As a result of these changes, we somewhat bizarrely now observe daylight saving for the vast majority of the year. “Today we have eight months of daylight saving and only four months of standard time,” Downing said. “Can you tell me which time is the standard?”

To some extent, the autumn return to standard time balances things out. With earlier sunsets, we’re out on the roads less, and therefore there’s less need to gas up the car. So there’s some savings there. Still, for much of the country, people wouldn’t be playing golf or having barbecues or visiting national parks anyway at that time of year because it’s just too cold.

And remember: Daylight saving is eight months of the year, versus only four months for “standard” time. Also: While daylight saving serves as an economic stimulus for two-thirds of the calendar year, standard time has its own epic consumer stimulus, in the form of Black Friday and the ever-expanding holiday shopping season.

MONEY Odd Spending

Why People Aren’t Buying Lottery Tickets

Lottery forms on a gas station counter in Lutherville-Timonium, Maryland, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013.
Patrick Semansky—AP

Lottery sales have gone flat in several states, but not necessarily as a result of gamblers waking up to the fact that the house always wins.

Are people who had been accustomed to dropping a few bucks here and there on state lottery games experiencing “jackpot fatigue”? It sure looks that way, according to Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, who at a recent meeting noted an astonishing 41% dropoff in Powerball sales in the state last month, compared with September 2013. Paraphrasing Martino, the Baltimore Sun reported that “players may be becoming numb to soaring prize numbers,” and so they’re not buying lottery tickets at the blazing pace set in the past.

Maryland is not the only state where lottery sales are falling, flat, or just not measuring up to the projections offered by local gaming commissions. Sales of core lottery games declined in Ohio during the first half of 2014, for instance, while lottery sales in Kentucky are failing to measure up to what was drawn up in the state budget last spring. Meanwhile, once-torrid lottery sales have plateaued in Missouri, with profits for the fiscal 2014 year that are $21 million lower than the year prior. One expert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the falloff in lottery sales in Missouri (and elsewhere) comes partly as a result of players getting bored with the games:

“It follows a life cycle like any product,” said Thomas Garrett, a University of Mississippi economist who studies lotteries. “You get this increase in sales. It peaks. People get used to it, and then you get this slowdown.”

In light of this concept, it makes sense that money spent at newer, up-and-coming video lottery terminals in states such as Ohio is rising, while traditional lottery games like instant tickets and Pick 3 and Pick 4 are on the decline. To boost sales and attract a new generation of lottery players, states are spending more on advertising and rolling out games that are sold in new ways (lottery ticket sales at gas station pumps and ATMs) and that are sold with themes favored by locals (college football teams, “Duck Dynasty”).

In addition to simple fatigue and a lack of excitement for the same old games, lottery sales have also been hurt by the spread of casinos, according to some research. This past summer, the Washington Post noted that lottery sales in Maryland had increased for 16 years in a row before casinos came to the state. And the recent opening of another casino in Maryland seems to have played some role in the September slump of Powerball tickets. “Those two industries [lottery and casinos] tend to be substitutes for each other,” one economist hired by Maryland to conduct a study on lottery sales explained to the Post.

At the same time, gambling industry supporters point out that while lottery sales in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania initially declined or went flat after casinos opened in the states, the drop was only a blip—and that sales are strong once again. The debate about how casinos impact lottery sales is raging in Massachusetts, where a Repeal the Casino campaign argues, among other things, “If the lottery takes the minimum expected hit of 10 percent from the introduction of casinos and slots, state lottery transferred as state aid to towns and cities will be reduced by about $90 million.” Casino supporters, on the other hand, say that such projections are based on outdated and flawed data, and that any effect of casinos on lottery sales is temporary.

MONEY Leisure

WATCH: TiVo Reveals Cheaper Box for Cord-Cutters

The Roamio OTA, designed for TV-watchers who don't have cable, costs only $50. But the subscription isn't so cheap.

MONEY Leisure

Shark Week Turns into a Feeding Frenzy for Consumer Eyeballs—and Cash

140801_EM_SharkWeek_Cupcakes
No "Shark Week" party is complete without a dozen of these cupcakes ($34.95 via Discover Channel store). courtesy of Georgetown Cupcakes

When there are shark-themed donuts and cupcakes for sale, it becomes clear that the marketing of "Shark Week" and sharks in general has, well, jumped the shark.

The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” kicks off on Sunday, August 10, bringing the frenzy of interest in the fascinating creatures of the deep to all new heights. The annual event is a ratings bonanza, and a hot topic on social media, complete with its own prerequisite hashtag #sharkweek.

While there’s nothing stopping “Shark Week” from being fun, entertaining, and informative all at once, some experts in the field—of scientific research, not entertainment or marketing—feel like the circus surrounding sharks is overkill, perhaps even exploitive. “I’m kind of disappointed, and I think most researchers are, too,” George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told USA Today. “It obviously is a big draw, but I’m afraid that the programs have gone more to entertainment and less to documentary over the years. It’s kind of a shame, because they have the opportunity to teach good stuff in what’s going on with science.”

The Discovery Channel is hardly the only party that’s guilty of playing to the lowest common denominator by focusing on “blood and gore or animals performing tricks,” as Burgess put it. And it’s hardly the only player out there trying to hook consumers’ attention (and dollars) by way of the shark.

Sharks—or more precisely, the fear of sharks—have a long history of helping to sell stuff. Movie tickets, for instance. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” not only kicked off the summer blockbuster as a phenomenon, but is also widely considered the biggest and best summer blockbuster film of all time. A series of sequels and other shark movies followed, as did the ever-expanding, factually questionable “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. In the so-called “Summer of the Shark,” in 2001 (mere weeks before 9/11, it’s often noted, when very different fears took over the American consciousness), unwarranted hype over shark attacks was used to sell magazines and keep viewers glued to 24/7 news channels, awaiting word of the next deadly aquatic encounter.

We’re still fascinated by sharks, and sharks are still being used to lure us into shops and TV shows and movies that we should probably know better than to watch. Lately, in an age dominated by memes and ironic-air-quotes “entertainment,” the cold-blooded mankiller of the deep has been replaced by an equally fictitious creature—the shark as adorable mascot.

This summer, “Shark Week” has been joined by the straight-to-cable arrival of the gag “movie” “Sharknado 2.” But given how much over-the-top goofball hype goes into “Shark Week” itself—Rob Lowe waterskiing atop two great whites anyone?—the Discovery Channel event seems to be its own best parody.

The merchandising of sharks and “Shark Week” has been, in a word, shark-tastic (the title of a book sold on the Discovery Channel, naturally). Among the roughly 150 items listed on the site as appropriate purchases for “Shark Week” celebration are shark kites, a Shark Week smartphone case, Shark Week bottle openers and coozies, “clever” shark T-shirts that say “Bite Me” and “I’m Hammered,” and Shark Week cupcakes that show Rob Lowe atop his pal sharks again.

Elsewhere in the ocean of summertime shark products, Dunkin’ Donuts is selling a Shark Bite Donut (the frosting resembles a life preserver), and Cold Stone Creamery has shark-themed cupcakes and ice cream sundaes, complete with colorful gummy sharks. Limited-edition “Shark Week”-inspired soap is available at one New York City boutique, while a “Shark Week” search at etsy turns up more than 1,300 hand puppets, pencil holders, custom-designed panties, pieces of jewelry, and other crafts. A whole other list of goods has been devoted to the frenzy around “Sharknado,” including a new perfume called “Shark by Tara,” created by one of the movie’s stars, Tara Reid.

The normally sober tacticians at Consumer Reports even got in on the action, using the Sharknado sequel as an excuse to run a review of chainsaws—the perfect weapon in the battle against sharks falling out of the sky.

Then there’s shark tourism. It might seem odd that any beach community would actively want to associate itself with sharks. Yet the effort to brand Chatham, Mass., the town on the elbow of Cape Cod—near plenty of seals and therefore sharks too—as something along the lines of the Shark Capital of America has been several years in the making. Starting in 2009, news spread that biologists were tagging great white sharks off the coast. Sure, it freaked some swimmers and boaters out, but it also drew the masses to the coast, bearing binoculars with the hope of spotting one of the beasts.

“The great white shark is sexy,” Lisa Franz, Chatham’s chamber of commerce chief, explained to the Boston Globe last summer. “Chatham as a town, I think, has embraced the whole shark concept,” she said. “As long as nobody gets hurt.”

Fast-forward a year, and the shark schlock business is booming. “Truthfully, we’ve probably grown about 500 percent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel,’’ one Chatham tourist shop owner offering “T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories” featuring great whites for $10 to $45 told the Associated Press in June.

People seem to love the shark meme so much that local restaurants and shopkeepers understandably have a new fear: They’re scared about what would happen to business if the sharks suddenly went away.

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