Before YouTube, ParticipAction’s television ads such as the 60-year-old Swede and Body Break were the viral videos of their day.The popularity of such ads made ParticipAction a household name and its pinwheel logo a widely recognized symbol across Canada. It used upbeat and innovative print, radio and TV ads, and campaigns such as Sneaker Days to raise awareness about physical fitness.
“People would call radio stations to request a ParticipAction commercial because they were so funny,” University of Saskatchewan history student Victoria Lamb Drover said.
A federally funded nonprofit organization, the original ParticipAction was at the forefront of a decadeslong effort to get Canadians physically active. In operation from the early 1970s until it closed its doors in 2001, it was one of the longestrunning health promotion initiatives in the world. It was re-established in 2007.
Lamb Drover is not studying more recent campaigns, but she thinks her ongoing study of the original program’s history will reveal successes and missteps to keep in mind as the organization continues to address Canada’s inactivity crisis. There may also be policy implications for any public service or non-governmental organizations that wish to reach Canadians pervasively.
ParticipAction’s history can be traced back to a team led by U of S kinesiologist Don Bailey, who began a community-based initiative to encourage Saskatonians to be more physically active. This pilot program was a model for what became ParticipAction, led by Russ Kisby, who was one of the university’s best-known alumni.
The U of S is home to the complete ParticipAction archives, a rich collection of advertisements, event materials and internal documents.
Lamb Drover is using the archive to conduct the first in-depth study of the iconic fitness organization’s history, its successes and why it lost momentum in the 1990s.
The original ParticipAction is generally considered one of the leaders in effective use of mass media to promote physical activity and sport participation.
With ParticipAction’s catchy slogans and cartoons as its vehicle, the government suggested how Canadians should exercise and what they should eat.
“The tools ParticipAction used to persuade Canadians into healthier living were cutting edge,” Lamb Drover said. “Working with a limited budget, they approached local radio stations and newspapers to run their ads for free. These were some of the first-ever public service announcements.”
By developing programming at the local level with support from English and French head offices, ParticipAction’s campaigns were sensitive to cultural differences across the country and adapted their messages accordingly.
“The original ParticipAction model would be difficult to execute today,” she said. “Standards for politically correct jokes have changed since the ’70s and ’80s. A decentralized governing structure where local organizers develop campaign materials for a nationally funded program raises potential copyright issues.”
ParticipAction became a model for other organizations around the world.
“Few organizations transcend language, region, gender, class and race to touch the majority of Canadians and become a part of our collective national memory,” Lamb Drover said.
“ParticipAction accomplished this on a shoestring budget with little more than enthusiasm, humour and passion for their cause.”
Lisa Buchanan is a graduate student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.
This article first ran as part of the 2012 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Communications office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.