Issues Relevant to Population Health in Political Advertising in the United States, 2011‐2012 and 2015‐2016

Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • Political advertising can influence which issues are public policy priorities.
  • Population health–relevant issues were frequently referenced in televised political advertising in the 2011‐2012 and 2015‐2016 US election cycles, with about one‐fourth of all ads aired mentioning traditional public health and health policy topics and more than half referencing broader determinants of population health.
  • The volume of population health–relevant issues referenced in political ads varied by geography, political office, political party, and election cycle.
  • Ads referencing broader determinants of population health (such as employment, education, or gender equality) rarely tied these determinants directly to health outcomes.

Context: Political discourse is one way that policymakers and candidates for public office discuss societal problems, propose solutions, and articulate actionable policies that might improve population health. Yet we know little about how politicians define and discuss issues relevant to population health in their major source of electoral communication, campaign advertisements. This study examined the prevalence of references to population health–relevant issues conveyed in campaign advertising for political office at all levels of government in the United States in 2011‐2012 and 2015‐2016. Understanding advertising as part of the political discourse on topics of relevance to population health yields insights about political agenda‐setting and can inform efforts to shape opinion.

Methods: We conducted a content analysis of all English‐language, candidate‐related campaign advertisements aired on local broadcast, national network, and national cable television in the 2011‐2012 and 2015‐2016 election cycles (3,980,457 and 3,767,477 airings, respectively). We analyzed the volume of coverage in these ads about issues relevant to population health, including narrowly defined public health issues as well as a broad range of other social, economic, and environmental factors that affect population health.

Findings: Across both election cycles and all electoral races, 26% of campaign advertising discussed issues relevant for the narrowly defined conceptualization of public health and 57% discussed issues pertinent to topics within the more expansive population health conceptualization. There was substantial variation in population health–related content in ads across election cycles, by level of political office, political party, and geographic area. Geographic variation indicates that where a person lives affects their potential exposure to political communication about various health‐related topics.

Conclusions: Political campaign ads in the United States frequently referenced population health–relevant content at all levels of government, although the ads rarely connected population health–relevant issues to health. Variation in volume and content of these references likely shaped public opinion and the public will to address population health–related policy.

Keywords: campaign advertising, social determinants of health, politics, population health, public health, media, public opinion.


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Published in 2019
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12427