ParticipACTION...The Mouse That Roared: A Marketing and Health Communications Success Story

I Introduction

ParticipACTION was one of the longest-running communication campaigns to promote physical activity in the world (1971-2001). For over 30 years, the proverbial "mouse that roared" nudged Canadians of all ages, sizes, and shapes to make physical activity a part of their everyday lives. With a small staff and a small budget, the organization and its message managed to become a uniquely Canadian source of influence, recognition, and pride.

The story of how this was accomplished is important for practitioners, marketers, and planners in communications, public health, and health promotion. This article provides a brief overview of the ParticipACTION story and the lessons learned over its 30 years. It is a condensed version of a recently released supplement to the Canadian Journal of Public Health (CJPH). You can access the complete document at and

II A Model of Social Marketing or Health Communications or Both?

After much discussion and debate, the authors of the CJPH supplement called it "ParticipACTION: A Marketing and Health Communications Success Story." In doing so, they suggest that ParticipACTION was a hybrid of both health communications and social marketing, an experimental mouse that adopted techniques from both camps along the way.

In 1971, when ParticipACTION began, the discipline called health communications did not exist. While efforts to persuade people to act in a healthy way are as old or older than public health itself, health education was the primary strategy of the 1950s and '60s. Health education was a one-way form of communication designed to give people information but not to persuade them to take action. Today, The Health Communication Unit at the Centre for Health Promotion, University of Toronto, defines comprehensive health communication campaigns as "goal-oriented attempts to inform, persuade, or motivate personal and social change at the individual, network, organizational, and societal levels. They are aimed at a well-defined, large audience and occur during a given time period, which may range from a few weeks to many years. They involve an organized set of communication activities and may draw on techniques from social marketing, media advocacy, and community mobilization." (1)

Similarly, in 1971, the theory and discipline of social marketing had just been introduced in the academic literature and was not in common practice. (2) In Kotler and Zaltman's original article social marketing was described as the use of commercial marketing strategies and techniques to sell social ideas and causes. In 2003, Kotler and Andreasen defined social marketing as "the application of generic marketing to a specific class of problems where the object of the marketer is to change social behaviour primarily to benefit the target audience and the general society." (3)

ParticipACTION exhibited features of a mass-media led health communications campaign over its entirety, with some initiatives focusing on awareness raising, information transfer, and setting a social agenda for increased physical activity. However, some elements used a clear social marketing approach: the ParticipACTION brand was omnipresent across programs targeting diverse population groups and over three decades, many initiatives involved private/public sector partnerships and some had defined formative research as part of message development. In addition, there were a diverse range of audience segments that were the focus in different years; some ParticipACTION efforts targeted special groups, workers, older adults, or youth and some targeted the general population.

While health communications and social marketing are important strategies for increasing awareness and knowledge and for influencing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, they are most effective when used in combination with a variety of other interventions at the community level. (4) ParticipACTION used a unique combination of awareness, education, and motivational techniques including

* public messaging through a wide variety and mix of medias;

* marketing techniques such as branding, promotion, positioning, point-of-purchase marketing, and identity development;

* educational information and motivational programs delivered through intermediaries;

* partnerships and networking;

* community mobilization and events; and

* face-to-face influence and leadership.

Thus, ParticipACTION became a leader in the developing fields of social marketing and health communications by both necessity and design.

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III Keys to Success

In "The Mouse Under the Microscope," Francois Lagarde describes ParticipACTION's performance and the lessons learned in relation to each of 12 elements of successful behaviour and social change initiatives identified by Kotler, Roberto, and Lee. (5, 6) Lagarde suggests that overall, ParticipACTION contributed to the advancement of physical activity in Canada by creating a movement through awareness raising, as well as by changing attitudes and influencing social norms. This, in turn, created a receptive climate for the institutional, environmental, and programmatic changes needed to help Canadians adopt physical activity.

ParticipACTION's primary strengths were

* the entrepreneurial way it was set up as a focused, small, nongovernmental organization and its unique relationship with the media;

* its appealing, humorous, relevant, simple, and clear approach to persuasive communications produced by dedicated and talented creative teams;

* its ability to forge partnerships for the delivery of educational projects and events; and

* its prevailing and persuasive presence over time and the brand recognition it achieved.

However, ParticipACTION faced a number of challenges:

* In the 1990s, ParticipACTION switched to survival mode due to tighter government funding combined with dramatic changes in marketing practices, health communications, media, and advertising, as well as increased competition and reduced support for public service announcements (PSAs).

* Given its dependency on PSA support from the media, ParticipACTION chose not to engage in advocacy activities that could have generated controversy. This eventually reduced its ability to be seen as a leading organization that addressed the factors that prevent some segments of the population from becoming physically active.

* For a variety of reasons, ParticipACTION did not always carry out the formative and tracking studies to plan, deliver, and evaluate campaigns that are now considered essential to funders.

Despite these challenges, two years after the agency had ceased to operate in 2001, almost 80% of Canadians still recognized the ParticipACTION logo and message. (7)

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IV Community Mobilization, Education, and Leadership

Long before the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion identified strengthening community action as one of the major health promotion strategies, ParticipACTION used community mobilization as a way to empower communities and motivate individuals to get more active. (8) While ParticipACTION's mandate was national, leaders in the organization believed there could be considerable merit in initially concentrating on one or two communities as a way of testing out various strategies.

In 1972, ParticipACTION launched its first community-based project in Saskatoon with the purpose of generating the volunteer cooperation and support of as many different community groups, organizations, institutions, and individuals as possible in a planned and coordinated campaign. Without any outside financing, the diverse, voluntary board of directors of ParticipACTION Saskatoon generated an exceptional level of support from the media and many leaders in physical activity and recreation, business, the faith community, education, and politics. They became pioneers in mobilizing communities around special days that encouraged mass participation in "try it" opportunities, such as the Walk-a-Block event. Saskatoon ParticipACTION was the genesis of the modern day Saskatoon in Motion program, which has become a model for communities across the country.

The lessons from Saskatoon (and Peterborough, which repeated the model) directly influenced the strategies employed for the successful CrownLife ParticipACTION Challenge, Canada 125, and Trans Canada Trail programs, as well as the development of community animators in Ontario.

ParticipACTION's goal was to be a leading catalyst and provider of information that would positively influence personal behaviour and social supports, which encourage healthy, active living for all Canadians. Educational resources help move people to action by providing information on the benefits of physical activity, what to do, and how to just "do it, do it, do it," to quote a popular ParticipACTION campaign. Whether targeting individual Canadians or supporting the work of leaders and intermediaries, ParticipACTION was committed to providing resources that were leading edge, relevant, easy to read, and credible. Examples of educational resources over the years included Health Savers, Project APEX, Jump To It, Fitness The Facts, the Krames health education booklets, InformACTION, and ParticipACTION's Workplace Wellness. The university of Saskatchewan is in the process of creating an interactive website archiving the ParticipACTION creative work. Watch for an announcement when it is completed.

There were numerous lessons on how best to support community mobilization, as well as events and the use of educational resources. These include

* the adoption of a community-driven approach (whether the community is a school, city, workplace, or group of peer leaders) that features full community participation, shared power, and decision making; and

* building on community strengths, building networks, and partnerships and believing in the value of collective action. (9)

By listening well, valuing voluntarism, respecting grassroots leaders, and providing high-quality support materials and access to media coverage, ParticipACTION earned a reputation of "doing with" rather than "doing for."

By all accounts, when the mouse roared in all the different ways that it did, the community understood--and roared back!

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V The Challenge of Bilingualism (10)

ParticipACTION's history paralleled the recognition and promotion of English and French as Canada's two official languages. Like all federally funded programs and organizations, ParticipACTION was expected to reach all Canadians in both official languages. And it did. In a 1994 survey, French-speaking respondents were more aware of ParticipACTION than English-speaking ones and Quebec respondents' unaided awareness of ParticipACTION was the highest in the country. Some 70% of Quebec respondents rated ParticipACTION's efforts as very useful, the highest rating in the country. (11)

Four main factors contributed to ParticipACTION's success at carrying out a national program that satisfied both English and French Canadians, even though limited budgets did not allow for the development of separate campaigns:

* the bilingual genesis of the organization;

* the attitude and skills of staff, board members, government supporters, etc.;

* the involvement of both Anglophone and Francophone staff and suppliers throughout the creative process; and

* the consistent recruitment of board members who had positive attitudes towards and networks in both official languages.

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VI Advice from the Experts

In her article "The Mousketeers," Peggy Edwards asked a number of ParticipACTION employees, leaders, and suppliers the following question: If a group came to you today and said "I want to be the ParticipACTION of...(sexual health, diabetes prevention, etc. you fill in the blank)," what would you say to them? (12)

Almost everyone prefaced his or her reply by saying that organizations now need to adapt to the communications world of the 21st century. Having said this, they offered the following suggestions:

1. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul (decades, not years).

2. Engage and meet the needs of communities across Canada.

3. Have a clear, concise mission and be passionate about it.

4. Maintain a high-profile advertising focus. Be prepared to work hard and spend time and effort establishing relationships with the media and private sponsors.

5. Make sure your message and tone is right. "You can't create advertising that beats you over the head and expect the entertainment media to play it for you for nothing," says Keith McKerracher, the first president of ParticipACTION.

6. Build and maintain political will and a sustainable funding base that is balanced between the public and private sector. Marilyn Knox, chair of ParticipACTION's last Board says, "To create a movement you need people, courage, and the right level of resourcing. If you don't have the money, you need to recreate yourself."

7. Stay small, lean, and flexible.

8. Nurture voluntary partnerships.

9. Pick a leader like Russ Kisby who is committed, tenacious, visionary, and likable.

10. Choose board members who are personally committed and professionally connected in a variety of influential areas; surround yourself with bilingual staff who are passionate about the cause; hire committed and creative suppliers who work for more than money; and find ways to build loyalty among private-sector sponsors, media representatives, government officials, and leaders in the community. In the end, it is the people who make the difference.

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VII The Legacy of ParticipACTION--Was It a Success?

Authors Bauman, Craig, Madill, and Salmon asked whether or not the ParticipACTION mouse actually got the cheese. (13) They concluded that while it is reasonable to judge that ParticipACTION was a public health and/or social marketing success story, limitations to the evaluation designs used prevent an understanding of its full contribution. At the very least, it delivered clear messages, enhanced community awareness of physical activity, and fostered community-based partnerships. These led to the delivery of many programs and events that reached many thousands of Canadians. The consistency and stability of high awareness rates in both official languages is testament to the national impact of this initiative compared to most other public health campaigns. (11)

A review of physical activity campaigns conducted across the world has suggested that post-campaign prompted-recall rates of campaigns, logos, or themes average around 70% of adults from population surveys. (14) Thus the prompted-recall rates of 80% and higher shown across the extant ParticipACTION surveys suggest a pervasive and sustained impact on the Canadian consciousness.

ParticipACTION preceded much of the theoretical work that underpins approaches to changing population health behaviour and the use of mass media to address public health problems. As such, it is remarkable how close many initiatives were to subsequent, more theoretical, efforts. For example, targeting of workers or women or youth reflected the principles of audience segmentation, efforts to change social norms reflected later developments in the theory of planned behaviour, and encouraging the trialling of activities reflected social cognitive theory. (15, 14)

Finally, there are no other public health related marketing or media efforts at the national level that have been as sustained as long as ParticipACTION was. Tobacco control, under the Quit Campaign and similar logos, has persisted in some countries since the 1980s, but the longevity of ParticipACTION is unrivalled in public health. The duration of ParticipACTION gives it rare status as an evidence-based, sustained campaign. This is distinctly different from initiatives in other countries, where mass media campaigns about physical activity have been short term or localized to small communities or regions. (13) Thus, although the increases in physical activity among adult Canadians during the time ParticipACTION was in operation cannot be causally linked to the agency, it is a likely a contributory factor, especially since most other developed countries experienced unchanging or even declining rates of physical activity participation during the same period. (16, 17, 18)

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VIII Conclusion

ParticipACTION demonstrated flexibility of operation and multi-sectoral capacity. Current awareness of the initiative remains high, even though it is no longer operating. One could ask no more of any "mouse's attempts to get the cheese" or of any effort designed to influence the culture change required for a more physically active Canada.

ParticipACTION made a unique, innovative and effective contribution by helping to enhance the lives of millions of Canadians. For today's social marketers, the ParticipACTION experience provides valuable lessons to ensure that the campaigns of tomorrow are equally or more successful.

IX References

1. This definition is based on Rogers, E.M., and Storey, J.D., "Communication Campaigns," in Berger, C.R., and Chaffee, S.H., (Eds), Handbook of Communication Science (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1988), and the work of The Health Communication Unit, University of Toronto, Centre for Health Promotion (

2. Kotler, P., Zaltman, G. Social marketing. J Marketing 1971; 35: 3-12

3. Andreasen, A., Kotler, P. Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2003; p346

4. Kahn, E. et al. Task Force on Community Preventative Services (2002). The effectiveness of interventions to increase physical activity: A systematic review. Am J Prev Med 2002; 22(4S): 73-104

5 Lagarde, F. The Mouse Under the Microscope: Keys to ParticipACTION's Success. Can J Public Health 2004;95 (Suppl. 2): S20-S24

6. Kotler, P., Roberto, N., Lee, N. Social Marketing - Improving the Quality of Life Second Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002

7. Ekos Research. Health Canada, May 2002.

8. World Health Organization. Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986, Available at

9. Edwards, P. Collective Action: The Community-Driven Approach to Active Living. Ottawa: Active Living Canada, 1995.

10. Lagarde, F. The Challenge of Bilingualism. Can J Public Health 2004;95 (Suppl. 2): S30-S32

11. Tandemar Research Inc. ParticipACTION Advertising Strategy Research, 1994.

12. Edwards, P. The Mousketeers: People Make the Difference. Can J Public Health 2004;95 (Suppl. 2): S33-S36

13. Bauman, A., Madill, J., Craig, C.L., Salmon, A. ParticipACTION: This mouse roared, but did it get the cheese? Can J Public Health 2004;95 (Suppl. 2): S14-S19

14. Cavill, N., Bauman, A. Changing social norms to promote health-enhancing physical activity: do mass media campaigns have a role? J Sports Sci (2004) in press.

15. Maibach, E.W. Recreating communities to support active living: a new role for social marketing. Am J Health Promotion. 2003:18(1):114-9

16. Hillsdon, al. National level promotion of physical activity: results from England's ACTIVE for LIFE campaign. J Epidemiol Community Health 2001;55:755-761

17. MMWR. Physical activity trends--United States, 1990-1998. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2001 Mar 9;50(9):166-9

18. Bauman, A. et al. Trends in physical activity participation and the impact of integrated campaigns among Australian adults, 1997-1999. Aust NZ Journal of Public Health 2003;27:76