The daily fix

Caffeine is the world’s most popular drug, but it has some dangers.


Nearly everyone takes it but hardly anyone refers to it as a drug. I’m talking about caffeine.

It’s in coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate and some pharmaceutical drugs. It’s the “energy” in energy drinks. There’s a booming legal drug industry built around caffeine.

In the early 1980s, I was involved in a group called Community Action on Science and the Environment. One of our projects concerned caffeine. We studied the medical literature and produced a leaflet. Even back then, the evidence was pretty clear. If you’re getting more than about 200 milligrams of caffeine per day – the amount in two cups of coffee or four cups of tea – it’s quite likely you’re having adverse physiological effects such as headaches or digestive disorders. You might also suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Source: wikipedia

If you want to be entertained while learning more about caffeine, get the new book Caffeinated by Murray Carpenter. He is a caffeine aficionado, touring the world to test and collect exotic products. The items on his shelf include:

Amp energy gum, 6 Hour Power energy shots, and Jitterbeans “highly caffeinated” candy. Cans of Red Bull, Rockstar 2X Energy, and Mega Monster energy drinks. There are bottles of Mountain Dew and Coke, and the cans of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi … There is a small package of roasted and ground cacao, which I purchased in Chiapas, where it is grown. … (p. xii)


Carpenter also delves into the worldwide political economy of caffeine, probing the expanding industrial connections and advertising operations.

I’m unusual in not getting much caffeine. I don’t drink coffee, tea or soft drinks, but do have some chocolate. One benefit is that I get plenty of sleep and wake up refreshed, without the need for a pick-me-up. Despite this unusual level of caffeine avoidance, I wanted to know more about what I’m missing, for good and bad. Caffeinated provides plenty of information.

Benefits and adverse effects

There has been a great deal of research on the effects of caffeine, including using the rigorous method of double-blind trials. Caffeine undoubtedly has some positive effects, especially in mental acuity. If you are doing something that requires alertness – such as driving a truck long distance, or staying up all night to write an essay – caffeine is a drug of choice.

The benefits of caffeine have been studied especially in relation to two groups. The first is athletes, for whom caffeine can give an edge in motivation and performance, though it can be addictive, with the benefits less for habitual users. The second group is soldiers, who need to overcome fatigue; the military has sponsored lots of research.


However, although caffeine provides alertness and energy, it is a short-term fix, and it’s not so clear whether regular users obtain much benefit compared to non-users. Caffeine can mask a lack of sleep, and performance might benefit nearly as much from proper sleep as from continual doses of the drug.

Carpenter quotes two researchers, Jack James and Peter Rogers, in a 2005 literature review in the journal Psychopharmacology as saying:

Appropriately controlled studies show that the effects of caffeine on performance and mood, widely perceived to be net beneficial psychostimulant effects, are almost wholly attributable to reversal of adverse withdrawal effects associated with short periods of abstinence from the drug. (p. 70)

After reading this, I felt my low caffeine intake was vindicated – until I read further to find that many other researchers disagree with James and Rogers, citing studies showing better memory and attention in a routinely caffeinated state.

For most people, though, caffeine is taken less for immediate performance benefits than as a habit, often attached to social rituals. Regular caffeine intake may be rationalised as a quest for a tasty drink, whether a good cup of coffee, a decent cup of tea or a refreshing cola. According to Carpenter, “The varied preferences for different forms of caffeine in all corners of the globe suggest that it is the drug itself that is the object of our desire” (p. 71).


Advertisers do what they can to make their drinks attractive, but they seldom highlight the key ingredient. Imagine a drink advertised as “a quick and easy way to get your daily fix”.

Some drug users take a great interest in the taste of the delivery mechanism. There are wine connoisseurs, but have you ever heard of grape juice connoisseurs? Without caffeine, would the quest for a delicious coffee evaporate?

There is increasing research interest in the adverse effects of caffeine. One important problem is anxiety. Studies of individuals prone to panic attacks show that caffeine increases the risk of an attack; a placebo does not. Even more surprising is that caffeine can trigger panic attacks in individuals who never had them before, but who are close relatives of those who have had them. There’s apparently a genetic component in susceptibility to caffeine-induced anxiety.

coffee, coffee

Caffeine in soft drinks creates the physical dependence that keeps imbibers coming back for more. In this way, caffeine is implicated in the problem of obesity.

Another rising problem is mixing caffeine with alcohol, as in some drinks now on the market. The problem is that alcohol impairs judgement but the caffeine masks the effects, so young users take more risks.

Just 10 grams of caffeine are enough to kill you. This would be require chugging 200 cups of tea, but ingesting a lethal dose is much more feasible with tablets. I remember a high school science experiment in which we extracted caffeine from tea leaves. We were awed that such as small amount of a white powder, obtained from a seemingly innocuous source, could be deadly.

synthetic caffeine

Marketing caffeine

Marketers usually avoid mentioning the caffeine in their products. Starbucks emphasises the quality of its coffee, while energy drinks such as Red Bull refer to energy, not caffeine.


Carpenter provides a fascinating tour of regulatory reactions to the increasing number of caffeine-loaded products. In the US, companies have long avoided regulation through an early classification of caffeine as GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe), but the Food and Drug Administration has started paying attention to the plethora of new products delivering caffeine, and companies try to avoid regulation by setting their levels just below what has historically been treated as acceptable.

Downplaying caffeine’s role is disingenuous, but entirely understandable. Caffeine is a drug, so to admit that a drug is the primary attraction in any product is fraught with both regulatory and moral peril. But there is another reason to divert the public’s attention from caffeine’s key role in commerce. If Starbucks acknowledged the caffeine’s importance, then it would be more difficult to charge four dollars for a coffee drink. Consumers might prefer a Jet Alert tablet (you could buy a hundred for less than the price of a double latte). Starbucks Refreshers drinks, with fifty milligrams of caffeine, could easily be replaced at half price by a Diet Mountain Dew. (p. 206)


Ironically, caffeine’s popularity is triggering regulatory interest in many countries. When caffeine was consumed in ritual settings of drinking tea and coffee, its adverse effects were less visible, though some individuals over-indulged. With the expansion of caffeine intake through soft drinks and energy drinks, sometimes mixed with alcohol, the hazards are becoming more obvious, for example when youth take shots containing multiple caffeine tablets. The spotlight is now being thrown on all uses of caffeine.

However, although some health-conscious individuals may modify their intake of caffeine, and regulators attempt to control some of the more risky products, the caffeine-industrial complex continues apace. There is a lot of money to be made by hooking ever more customers into demanding their daily fix in the guise of a costly delivery vehicle, whether coffee, tea, soft drink, energy drink or chocolate.


Reflecting on the benefits and risks of caffeine can be useful when considering policy on other drugs. All drugs have benefits and risks, after all, and there is no obvious cut-off point for deciding whether and when a drug should be banned, taxed, available only on prescription, or otherwise condemned or controlled. The adverse health effects of caffeine could be reduced by removing it from food and drink, but at the expense of creating a huge black market and stimulating organised crime. As you get your daily lift from caffeine, you can use your greater mental acuity to consider how best to address habits that are increasingly caffeinated.

Brian Martin

Murray Carpenter, Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us (New York: Penguin, 2014)



Melissa Raven offers the following historical angles on caffeine.

Coffee Cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach
The early 18th century enthusiasm in Western Europe for coffee amongst the middle classes was affecting Prussia’s economy. The country’s monarch, Frederick the Great, wanted to block imports of green coffee as Prussia’s wealth was being drained by the huge sums of money going to foreign exporters. Also the right to sell coffee was intended to be restricted to four distillers but the fashion for drinking coffee has become so widespread that the law was being flouted and coffee beans illegally roasted. The Prussian king condemned the increase in coffee consumption as “disgusting” and urged his subjects to drink beer instead. Frederick employed coffee smellers, who stalked the streets sniffing for the outlawed aroma of home roasting. However such was the public outcry that eventually he was forced to change his mind. As a satire on the whole affair, Bach wrote the “Coffee Cantata,” a humorous one act operetta about a stern father’s attempt to check his daughter’s indulgence in the much loved Saxon habit of coffee drinking.


LONG before the multi-coloured hippie experience there was another group of long-haired men and women who went in for drink, drugs and sex. The Bohemians, as they were known, lived in Paris in the 1840s. Although their sexual and drinking habits raised eyebrows, what really shocked Parisians was their use of a stimulant drug in large quantities. According to a later medical textbook it ‘made the sufferer tremulous, subject to fits of agitation and depression. The sufferers loses colour and has a haggard appearance’. The drug was coffee,
Wells, Troth. (1984, October). Our daily fix. New Internationalist, pp. 14-15.

From Melissa’s PhD thesis (, p. 303
Hennessey (1993) documented an epidemic of deaths, predominantly female, due to kidney failure resulting from long-term use of compound analgesics such as Bex and Vincents in Australia from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. Although the damage was directly caused by the combination of phenacetin and aspirin, the high caffeine content of these products (APCs – aspirin, phenacetin, caffeine) fostered the dependence that led to the cumulative effects (p. 6). Advertising in influential Australian women’s magazines also played a major role in encouraging and indeed normalising use. Compound analgesics were constructed as the solution to everyday stresses experienced by women (particularly housewives).
Citation: Hennessey, Eileen (1993). A cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down. Department of History & Politics, James Cook University of North Queensland.

Feeling good when others suffer

The emotion of schadenfreude — joy in the pain of others — is widespread but has some dangerous associations.


Imagine that your favourite team is about to play a crucial match, and you hear the news that the other team’s star player has suffered a serious injury during training. You might feel sorry for the player but you also might initially feel a surge of pleasure about the improved prospects for your team.

Another scenario: you have been striving hard at work to be chosen for an important assignment, but are frustrated by a talented rival. Your rival suffers a setback due to a family crisis. You are outwardly concerned but may feel some satisfaction in the turn of events.

Your next-door neighbour is outwardly successful, with a prestigious high-paying job, a large house, fancy car and immaculately presented family. By comparison, you are not nearly so well off. Imagine your feeling when a news report reveals that your neighbour has been the victim of a swindle and will have to downsize.

These are examples of the emotion called schadenfreude, a German word meaning pleasure resulting from someone else’s pain. To learn more about it, I recommend Richard H. Smith’s book The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013). Smith describes, in an accessible manner, research on schadenfreude, providing everyday examples drawn from popular culture, for example The Simpsons.


Although schadenfreude is often experienced, it is seldom acknowledged publicly or even privately. It is not seen as proper to gloat over someone else’s pain, so in many cases this is a secret emotion. However, there are some circumstances in which schadenfreude is more acceptable and freely expressed: when the other person seems to deserve their suffering.

Smith describes the US television programme To Catch a Predator in which men were enticed, through online conversations, to visit a house where they expected to meet an underage person, possibly for sex. The house was rigged with numerous cameras and the men were filmed as they were informed that their activities and responses were being recorded for broadcast on television. For the men, this was close to the ultimate in humiliation: they were being exposed on national television as likely paedophiles.


Smith notes that paedophilia is so universally reviled that it seems acceptable to revel in the acute agony of these men. They are suffering and many audience members feel it is only fair. Yet the background to each man’s visit was omitted from the program. Some of them may have been victims of child sexual abuse, and there was no explanation of what led up to their visit, nor any proof that they were guilty of paedophilia. The program was set up to enable viewers to enjoy the men’s humiliation, a spectacle called humilitainment.

The example of To Catch a Predator is just one example of what Smith calls the dark side of human nature. Humans are constantly comparing themselves to others, and improve their self-esteem when they come out on top. Studies show that when assessments of personal qualities are subjective, most people think they are better than average. For example, nearly everyone thinks their sense of humour is above average.

Social comparison is almost universal, and when people peg their self-image by comparisons, it is a short step to envy, a toxic emotion. Envy is the resentment and ill will felt when observing that someone has something — money, possessions, talent, good looks, fame — that you don’t. Few people like to feel inferior. Envy often includes a wish for the envied person to suffer or be brought down. This sets the stage for schadenfreude.


It is one thing to be secretly pleased when someone else suffers, because you feel better about yourself, and another to take action to bring about another person’s suffering. Smith, to probe the darkest aspect of these emotions, considers the actions and emotions of Germans during the Nazi occupation of Europe, in particular their attitudes towards the Jews. At the time, many Jews were highly successful, disproportionately filling the ranks of doctors, lawyers and media proprietors, so it is plausible that their high social standing evoked envy. However, few people like to admit to envy, so Hitler and other Nazis instead devalued the Jews — including with furious condemnations — thereby providing a pretext for harming them. Smith provides some telling bits of evidence suggesting that schadenfreude was one of the emotions involved in the genocide of the Jews.

He is also careful to note that in ordinary circumstances, envy is held in check and does not lead to actions to hurt others. To provide a more positive note, Smith gives some examples of individuals who have learned how to rise above any suggestion of schadenfreude. He tells of a man he knew, widely esteemed by others, who never said an ill word about anyone.


In psychology, the “fundamental error of attribution” refers to a widespread mental process of assuming that the behaviour of others reflects their inner purpose. If someone makes some nasty comments, we may assume they have a hostile personality. Yet there are often explanations for behaviour based on circumstance. The other person may be physically ill or suffering extreme stress, which could help to explain their comments.

When our own poor behaviour is involved, we readily blame it on external factors. The fundamental error of attribution involves interpreting actions by others differently than our own.

This is pertinent to schadenfreude. Our own misfortunes, we may feel, are unfair or due to circumstances beyond our control, but the misfortunes of others are attributed to their own flaws. To overcome the tendency to think this way, it is useful to try to think of possible external causes for others’ behaviour. The man who Smith knew learned to do this, and hence did not join in the usual gossiping about the foibles and misfortunes of others.

Smith offers as an exemplar Abraham Lincoln, who early in his career learned the wisdom of not condemning others and subsequently showed amazing restraint in his comments to them. After General George Meade won the battle of Gettysburg but failed to follow up by pursuing the Robert E. Lee’s army and thereby winning the civil war then and there, Lincoln was immensely frustrated, especially because he had futilely appealed to Meade to pursue Lee’s army. Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade expressing his distress at his shortcoming — but he never sent it, and it was found in Lincoln’s papers subsequently. To have sent the letter would have pained Meade but to no purpose.


The Joy of Pain is valuable because it tackles a topic seldom probed outside the scholarly literature. Without being pointed, it can encourage the reader to reflect on emotions and behaviour in a new light, taking into account social comparisons and the toxic consequences of envy.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Roger Patulny for useful comments.

From selling politicians to promoting deliberation

Dee Madigan’s book The Hard Sell reveals how Australian political advertising works. It can also be used to highlight obstacles to deliberative democracy.

Dee Madigan worked for many years in the advertising industry as a creative director. She became involved in political advertising, being part of the campaign teams for several politicians in the Australian Labor Party. With this background, she was highly knowledgeable about what might be called “The selling of Australian politicians” (in the tradition of several accounts of US presidential campaigns).


Madigan has written an exposé entitled The Hard Sell: The Tricks of Political Advertising (Melbourne University Press, 2014). She tells about various standard techniques used in advertising efforts on behalf of politicians, for example branding of parties, preparing advertisements, the use of positive and attack ads, different platforms (television, social media, etc.) and focus groups.

This is a no-nonsense guide that is engaging in its style and content. For example, in the chapter “TV isn’t dead but the internet is awesome” she writes:

With the advent of social media things got even more frantic in the ad world. Agencies started employing “social media experts” (which was anyone with a Twitter account) to run campaigns. These “experts” were full of lines like, “It’s about starting a conversation.”

Every time someone says this, I’m tempted to whack them over the head with my laptop.

Because it is utter, utter bullshit.

The role of any form of marketing is to persuade. And anyone who says the conversation itself is the purpose is either fooling themselves or fooling you. (p. 133)

She writes about the Australian political scene but also draws on research and experiences in other countries, especially the US where political marketing techniques are most highly developed. The Australian political system is different from the US in several ways. One of the most important, for the purposes of political campaigning, is that voting in the US is voluntary, so much effort is expended trying to encourage supporters to actually vote. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, the orientation is more to try to get so-called “swinging voters” — who don’t pay much attention to politics — to vote for the preferred brand.

Swinging voters (image: Eric Lobbecke, The Australian)

Madigan acknowledges that shady activities can occur, such as unfair and manipulative slurs in ads, but she basically believes in the system, arguing that dodgy practices are constrained in various ways, and can actually be counterproductive. She could hardly be an effective player in campaigns if she was too cynical.

She is a supporter of Labor, but The Hard Sell is quite balanced in providing insights, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of efforts on behalf of Labor, Liberals and other parties. You don’t have to be a Labor supporter to learn a lot from the book.

Here, I want to use Madigan’s book for a different purpose, namely to highlight features of the Australian political system that are obstacles to the goal of deliberation in political decision-making, in particular deliberation by citizens. The word “deliberation” in this context means carefully considering information, options and goals, often in discussions with others.

In a jury trial, the jury members are involved in a process of deliberation. They hear the evidence and assess it, and then discuss with each other their observations and views with the goal of reaching a consensus on the verdict. This is quite different from listening to ads and deciding what product (or politician) to buy.

The idea of jury deliberations has actually been applied to political decision-making in what are called policy juries or citizens panels. A group of 12 or more randomly selected citizens is brought together for several days and asked to address a particular issue, such as nanotechnology policy. They get to hear presentations from advocates and researchers, receive printed materials to study, spend time discussing options with each other, and deliberate towards a consensus position. The panels are coordinated by independent facilitators, rather like referees at sporting matches, whose aim is good process rather than any particular outcome. They help the group find its own way towards mutually agreed recommendations.

Citizens’ jury in Minnesota

Hundreds of such policy-panel deliberations have been organised in recent decades, in many different countries. The results are encouraging. Jury members take the process very seriously, carefully consider the evidence, learn from each other, and come up with recommendations that most external observers see as sensible, even wise. Perhaps best of all, most participants report that the experience is satisfying for them personally. Some even say it is the best thing they have done in their entire lives. Genuine participation, with deliberation, is empowering. The experience with citizens’ juries provides some of the best evidence that deliberative democracy is a worthwhile ideal.

In looking at Australian political campaigning, as so clearly presented by Madigan, in light of the goal of greater deliberation, I will consider branding, focus groups, voting and news cycles. This isn’t a comprehensive coverage of ideas in The Hard Sell but is sufficient to illustrate that any political system susceptible to marketing is unlikely to foster deliberation.



Many politicians get cross when we in advertising refer to “political brands”. They feel we are emphasising the selling over the doing. But that just shows they don’t really understand what a brand is. A brand is who you are, what you say and what you stand for. Equally, it’s about how the voter feels about you — the emotions that are elicited when they think of you. It is the emotional and psychological relationship a political party has with their voters.

So, yes, political parties are brands, and individuals within parties have personal brands. Unless parties understand this they will struggle to connect with voters. (p. 2)

The value of a brand is that it short-circuits thinking. At a supermarket, a shopper who relies on brands does not check prices or contents: the brand is enough to ensure a purchase, or at least a preference. When products are essentially identical, brands make choice easier. They can also command a premium. Some fruit juices, for example, come from the same cannery but are put into differently branded containers. Some designer clothes are little different from cheaper copies. Purchasers may be buying image rather than substance.

Any political system in which branding plays a significant role is likely to be the enemy of deliberation. In Australia, political brands are highly influential. Labor and Liberals try to create favourable images, sometimes contradictory ones to different sections of the electorate, with the hope that voters will identify with them.

Branding of parties means that voting doesn’t require examination of policies or performance. The key is image.

Australian Liberal Party attack ad

Political party identification actually can induce people to accept positions contrary to their personal beliefs. In the US, researchers found that when a policy position was labelled Republican or Democratic — namely endorsed by their favoured party — many voters would accept the policy even when it conflicted with the belief system supposedly associated with their party. What this means is that a Republican voter might accept a policy if it is labelled Republican but reject it if it is labelled Democratic. In short, these voters don’t think for themselves.

If deliberation is to become important in a political system, branding needs to be minimised. The most radical solution is to get rid of political parties. Imagine going to a polling booth and finding that the ballot paper only has names, without any party identification. However, this doesn’t get rid of personal branding.

An alternative to the electoral system is to use random selection of decision makers, as in a jury. Branding doesn’t give any advantage when choices are made randomly. Indeed, election campaigning becomes superfluous.

Focus groups


On any given night, somewhere in Australia, there is a group of eight complete strangers being paid to sit around a table in a room and give their opinion about something: a flavour of ice-cream, the merits of eight grooves in a tampon instead of six (no, I am not joking), or a particular ad for TV. And behind a glass window, there is another room filled with people watching them. (p. 31)

Focus groups might sound like a form of deliberation, but they are closer to a type of opinion poll. Furthermore, they are used for market research, a non-deliberative purpose.

Australian political parties use focus groups extensively to test out ideas. Madigan’s special interest is how focus groups are used to assess political ads. She creates an ad, or at least the draft of an ad, and then it is introduced to a focus group. The response can make the difference between running it and canning it. This use of a focus group is designed to help select tools — ads — that more effectively manipulate voters. The word “manipulate” is appropriate here because ads are not aimed at fostering insight or reflection but at producing an outcome or, to use the relevant metaphor, inducing the selection of the desired political brand.

Then there is choice of who is selected to join focus groups.

In elections, focus groups are chosen according to targeted demographics; in short, they are the “low-hanging fruit”. “High-hanging fruit” are those who are voting the other way — there’s no point trying to get them as you’ll never reach them. And the fruit on the ground are yours anyway so you don’t spend much money trying to get them either. The low-hanging fruit are the soft voters — they have voted for you at one of the last two elections, and are considering voting the other way this time around. (pp. 36–37)

Parties hire recruitment companies to survey people and, using their answers to key questions, identify those who soft voters. These are the ones invited to focus groups and whose opinions are used to select ads — that are, as a result, oriented to soft voters. So the entire operation of focus groups in political campaigning is targeted at these sorts of voters. In Australia, they are often called swinging voters, because they may swing back and forth, from one election to another, between one major party to another.

(Australia has preferential voting, so a vote for a minor party usually ends up supporting one of the two major parties, especially in the House of Representatives. In any case, the idea of swing in the “two-party preferred vote” is highly influential in the way commentators and party officials think about elections.)

So focus groups are, during an election campaign, a particular type of market research, namely targeting swinging voters with persuasive ads.

Australian Labor Party attack ad

Putting so much weight on the views of swinging voters puts deliberation even further from the agenda, because many of these voters pay little attention to political issues: they are more swayed by the brand than policies and by promises rather than performance. In a fully functioning deliberative democracy, the views of all citizens would be taken into account, and those who are most informed would be more respected and possibly influential.


Madigan’s main interest is political advertising, but she recognises the value of traditional forms of campaigning. In particular, she acknowledges the importance of politicians actually meeting voters, for example through door-knocking.

Door-knocking on climate change

In a large electorate, a politician cannot possibly meet everyone, so door-knocking is carried out by supporters. And in this there is plenty of data and analysis about how to be more effective. Parties, or agencies working for them, build up databases about citizens. Again, those targeted in efforts to meet and interact with voters are the “low-hanging fruit.” Furthermore, meetings with voters are designed to be efficient, usually last two minutes or so, enough to make an impression but no longer than necessary. Spending an hour with a voter is not an efficient use of resources, especially with a voter with strongly held views.

Madigan reports that up to 20% of voters make up their decisions on the way to the polling booth. One key influence is the how-to-vote card. Near polling stations, supporters of different parties set up shop with tables, banners and leaflets. Most important is the how-to-vote card, indicating exactly what boxes to number to support a particular party or candidate.

Many voters do not know enough about the candidates, parties or issues to make a decision based on informed choice, so they choose a brand — a party — and follow its instructions. Some Australian governments have made this even easier by introducing voting “above the line”: a voter can give a tick to single party, without giving preferences to other parties or candidates, and the party chosen selects the preferences. There is all sorts of horse-trading between parties as they seek to acquire preferences from other parties.

All of this could be overcome by simple changes to ballot papers. Instead of listing political parties, just the candidates could be listed — in a random order. Different ballot papers would have the names printed in different sequences. This would mean that the usual how-to-vote card wouldn’t work: instead of ticking according to the card — 4, 5, 1, 6, 3, 2 for example — the voter would actually have to identify their favoured candidate by name and put a 1 next to it. This doesn’t sound like much, but many voters pay so little attention to elections that without a how-to-vote card they would be clueless.

There is a phenomenon called the donkey vote. Some voters, rather than submitting a blank ballot — which seems the most sensible option if you don’t really care who is elected — instead number the candidates sequentially: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This means that the candidate allocated the top position on the ballot gets extra, unwarranted votes. If different ballot papers had the candidates listed in different orders, then donkey votes would give little or no advantage.


Of course, parties could still hand out how-to-vote cards giving the names of their preferred candidates. Furthermore, some desperate candidates might change their names to Liberal Party or Labor Party, seeking the ultimate in brand identification. Randomising names on ballot papers would be only a small step towards encouraging greater awareness by voters. On its own it would not do a lot towards deliberation.

News cycles

The mass media, especially television, remains a potent influence on voters. Political parties have various ways to influence the news, for example putting out media releases at suitable times (to encourage or discourage coverage, depending on the story), cultivating journalists and using spin. Madigan covers all this, including the peculiarly Australian aspects of parliamentary elections, such as the blackout of political ads on radio and television three days before elections (newspaper and online ads are allowed).

Australian Greens bumper sticker

Madigan notes that the 24-hour news cycle, in which something more than a day old is no longer newsworthy, no longer exists. The news cycle is much shorter, in part due to social media.

As news cycles get shorter, so do political memories. The amount of credit you get after an event also gets shorter and shorter. It’s why politicians are increasingly looking for short-term wins rather than planning for the long term. (p. 160)

The news cycle, long or short, is hardly conducive to deliberation. It has been well documented that most news coverage lacks context, history and careful analysis. Hearing the news provides little insight into the pros and cons of issues. It does very little to encourage deliberation. This is especially true when the news is subject to politicians’ efforts to sway opinion via what is called “spin.”

Spin is designed to argue a viewpoint and direct people’s attention. It is one side of the truth. Democracy is built on the principles of debate, after all. The danger is when the media presents it as the whole truth. (p. 163)

“Democracy” is seen here by Madigan as built on debate — but a debate between opposing spin doctors, each using the media to present a one-sided, partial truth. This form of debate is all very well, but citizens are positioned as the audience, not as participants in the debate.

In any debate each side has both the right, and indeed the responsibility, to present their arguments in as compelling a way as possible to garner the most support from the audience — or, in this case, the voters. That is a fundamental part of democracy. And just as some people are better with numbers and others at fixing stuff, some are experts at communicating. So it makes sense to use these people in this area. Especially now that so much of political debate takes place in media forums in which effective, persuasive communication is essential. (p. 156)

This passage articulates the conventional idea of politics as a professional activity, in which political operatives, along with communication specialists such as Madigan, attempt to persuade voters to adopt their brand. Citizens become the audience, watching the performance and occasionally — at elections — expressing their preferences.

Deliberative democracy is something quite different. It involves the erstwhile audience members becoming the performers. Rather than just debating preformed views, they explore options, imagine alternatives and work towards collective judgement.

Some questions then arise. Is there any scope for the skills of Madigan and other political communication specialists being used to promote deliberative democracy itself? Is deliberation simply one more product to be sold to an audience? If not, what is the process for transforming political systems into more participatory forms? What would be the role of persuasive communication in a set of deliberative processes?

Ideally, the process of promoting deliberative democracy would itself be participatory: the means would reflect the ends. Perhaps, in doing this, Madigan or others like her can contribute. Meanwhile, we can learn from The Hard Sell the essence of party politics as marketing, and better understand why politicians have such difficulty imagining participatory alternatives.

Brian Martin


Thanks to Lyn Carson for invaluable comments on a draft.