The unsolicited press release below recently arrived via email at the New to Las Vegas world headquarters. The sender was Publishers Clearing House. That’s the controversial well-known Long Island outfit fronted by celebrity Steve Harvey that promotes the sale of magazine subscriptions through big awards from dubious sweepstakes (one does not have to subscribe to a publication to win, even if some participants might be excused for thinking so). Judging from long-term circulation numbers in the magazine industry, I’m not sure how effective this ploy is.
But boy, PCH could teach Las Vegas casino operators something about setting odds.
The PCH press release announced a big event that will take place later today, Wednesday, January 11, in that mecca of risk, the Las Vegas area. The last line says “EMBARGO: DO NOT POST INFORMATION UNTIL WINNER HAS BEEN ANNOUNCED.” But since I never asked for the press release nor agreed to any embargo, and contract law in this country says an offer needs an acceptance to be enforceable, and this is not a matter of life or death, I am under no such legal restraint. (PCH’s sole remedy would be to take me off its email list, which would be such a shame.) So here is the text, with some contact information redacted by me out of sheer mercy:
REQUEST FOR MEDIA COVERAGE
PCH PRIZE PATROL IS ON THE ROAD PRESENTING BIG CHECKS — AS SEEN ON TV
LAS VEGAS RESIDENT WINS BIG
America’s most welcome house guests will surprise one of your neighbors with roses balloons and a big check for $10,000.00
The Prize Patrol from Publishers Clearing House, renowned for awarding over half a billion dollars in prizes nationwide, is traveling to Las Vegas, NV on Wednesday, January 11th to award $10,000.00 to one lucky winner – who has absolutely no idea what is about to happen. (We never notify the winner in advance that we are coming.) Come witness the live surprise!
JOIN THE PRIZE PATROL FOR THIS “GOOD NEWS” STORY.
Sometimes winners are at work or shopping or off doing errands when the Prize Patrol arrives. But with so many people still home-based, the chances are better than ever that the Prize Patrol will find the winner without delay. So join us for the excitement!
- 12:30 PM: Smith’s floral department – 4700 W Ann Rd, North Las Vegas, NV 89031
- Depart to surprise the lucky winner who lives nearby.
LET US KNOW IF YOU WILL PARTICIPATE.
Respond to the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol to confirm your participation and/or conduct interviews – on site or in your studio.
EMBARGO: DO NOT POST INFORMATION UNTIL WINNER HAS BEEN ANNOUNCED
Note there is no mention in the press release about odds, and for a very good reason. They are roughly similar to those for a specific person being struck by lightning on a specific day of the year.
Which is to say, nil.
Don’t take my word for this. Buried deep on the PCH website for each contest are the “estimated odds of winning.” (One does have to enter, which can be done online, to have a chance of winning.) The award to be handed out today in the Las Vegas area is $10,000. I don’t know which contest this is. But currently running PCH contest No. 18023, which ends on March 31 and also has a $10,000 prize, states in its “official rules” that the winning odds are 1 out of 1.2 billion. That’s with a B. I’ll go with that.
(In case you wonder about my comparative struck-by-lighting math: According to health authorities, about 2,000 persons throughout the world are hit by lightning each year. With the world population now up to 7.9 billion and 365 days in most years, that works out to daily odds of being such a victim of 1 out of 1.4 billion. Also with a B.)
Compared to some grander PCH contests like “$5,000 a week forever” (a second-to-die competition that has stated odds of 6.2 billion to 1 and, like most PCH campaigns runs for years before a winner is declared), the $10,000 being handed out in NLV today is just chump change. The relatively public odds disclosure of today’s PCH was the result of multiple governments lawsuits and actions mainly in the 1990s claiming consumers were being misled.
I was interested in the math of magazine sweepstakes long before that. Thirty-seven years ago tomorrow, in 1986, I wrote for the Dallas Times Herald one of the first stories anywhere detailing the true odds of winning something big in magazine sweepstakes. My lengthy article was widely reprinted around the country. At that time, the sector also included Reader’s Digest, American Family Publishers, Magazine Marketplace and Great American Magazine.
Back then, there was no easy-to-access Internet and the odds were closely held. But as the newspaper’s New York City-based national correspondent, I had learned that a little-known New York State law required sweepstakes promoters to file obscure surety bond paperwork with terms and conditions–including odds–and that it was all public record. Where? At the Miscellaneous Records Section of the New York State Secretary of State’s office in the state capital of Albany. So on one below-zero-degree winter morning, I rode the train 150 miles to the Amtrak station opposite Albany on the Hudson River and took a cab to the only place in America where the odds could be easily learned. “We’ve never had a reporter look at these records before,” the office supervisor told me–music to the ears of any inquiring journalist–before leading me through a dank room to a set of bulging file cabinets. I took a lot of notes.
In 1986, according to a chart published with my story, the odds of winning PCH’s contest No. 44–top prize being a payout of $2 million over 10 years–was 468.625 million to one. So over time the odds have gotten a lot longer for far lesser payouts. Looking at my two examples, entrants to ongoing contest No. 18023 face odds that are four times worse for an effective 96% cut in the jackpot.
But compared to PCH, Las Vegas casino operators are positively running a Sisters of Charity operation in their relative generosity. While it is a truism that the house wins in the long run, it really isn’t by all that much. For example, slot machines in Las Vegas casinos on average pay out about 90% or a little bit more of the amount wagered; at the roulette wheel, it’s 95%.
Firm data on the odds of getting a big payout–$10,000 or more–on a modest single play is hard to come by. But studies I have seen suggest such odds are as high as 50 million to 1. Still, even that is 24 times better for the customer than what PCH is paying out today in North Las Vegas.
Even in its Las Vegas heyday, organized crime running the casinos didn’t try for anything like that. Fortunately, it appears PCH “Prize Patrol” will be here for only one day.