Exposure to televised political campaign advertisements aired in the United States 2015–2016 election cycle and psychological distress

Jeff Niederdeppe, Rosemary J. Avery, Jiawei Liu, Sarah E. Gollust, Laura Baum, Colleen L. Barry, Brendan Welch, Emmett Tabor, Nathaniel W. Lee, Erika Franklin Fowler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context: Prior research suggests the potential for political campaign advertisements to increase psychological distress among viewers. The current study tests relationships between estimated exposure to campaign advertising and the odds of respondents reporting that a doctor told them they have anxiety, depression, insomnia, or (as a negative control) cancer. Methods: A secondary analysis of U.S. data on televised campaign ad airings from January 2015 to November 2016 (n = 4,659,038 airings) and five waves of a mail survey on television viewing patterns and self-reported medical conditions from November 2015 to March 2017 (n = 28,199 respondents from n = 16,204 unique households in the U.S.). Findings: A 1 percent increase in the estimated volume of campaign advertising exposure was associated with a 0.06 [95% CI 0.03–0.09] percentage point increase in the odds of a respondent being told by a doctor that they have anxiety in the past 12 months. We observed this association regardless of the political party of the ad sponsor, the political party of the respondent, or their statistical interaction. We also observed this association for both Presidential campaign ads and non-Presidential (including local, state, and U.S. congressional election) campaign ads, providing evidence that these relationships were not driven by the unique divisiveness of the race between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Some topic-specific models offered additional evidence of association between estimated volume of campaign advertising exposure and the odds of being told by a doctor that they have depression or insomnia, but these patterns were less consistent across models that utilized different categories of campaign exposure. Campaign ad exposure was not associated with cancer, which served as a negative control comparison. Conclusions: There was a consistent positive association between the volume of campaign advertising exposure and a reported diagnosis of anxiety among American adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number113898
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - May 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant No. 73619 ). The authors purchased the Simmons National Consumer Survey (NCS) data used in this study from internal faculty research accounts provided by their respective colleges and departments. The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors have no competing interests to report. We are grateful to the numerous student researchers at Wesleyan and Cornell Universities who made this project possible.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s)


  • Health communication
  • Mental health
  • Political advertising
  • Politics
  • Psychological distress

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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