Canadian Women’s Foundation puts a number to its ongoing ‘Signal for Help’

Who: The Canadian Women’s Foundation, with Juniper Park\TBWA for strategy and creative, Skin & Bones for production (Kelsey Larkin directing), post-production by Rooster Post, Alter Ego, and Grayson Matthews. Media by Touché!

What: “Signal Responders,” the follow-up to the last year’s “Signal for Help,” which was developed so women could subtly signal to someone on a video chat that they were being abused by a partner. The symbol achieved widespread recognition since its introduction, with the Canadian Women’s Foundation saying it is now known by one-third of Canadians. This latest effort is intended to educate people about what to do after seeing a woman using the signal.

When & Where: The campaign launched on Nov. 25, timed to coincide with 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence that is part of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is being promoted through an online video, as well as across out-of-home inventory donated by AllVision, Astral Media, and Pattison. There is also a dedicated website at

Why: “Signal Responders” is built around insight derived from a survey conducted for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which found that only one in six Canadians are very confident they know what to say or do to support someone experiencing sexual or emotional abuse, only 19% are confident they would know supportive things to say to someone experiencing abuse, and only 26% are confident they would know how to refer someone to support services.

“There’s a whole bunch of complexity and nuance that relates to what is the right advice to give someone if they see the Signal for Help,” said Juniper Park’s chief creative officer, Graham Lang. “The Canadian Women Foundation’s brief to us was to develop a mechanism that allows people to respond in the right way. ”

How: This year’s effort is built around “540-540,” a numeric representation of the symbol—from open hand, to thumb pressed into the palm and covered by four fingers (from five fingers, to four, to zero)—to which people can text the word “Signal” to receive an Action Guide containing information about how to proceed. “Once you see that [number] you remember it,” said Juniper Park’s chief creative officer, Graham Lang. “It becomes indelible.”

After settling on the 540-540 number, Juniper Park approached individual telcos like Bell, Rogers and Telus to ensure it worked on their individual networks. “It took a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” said Lang. “It’s one of those ideas which is really simple, but under the surface there was an incredible amount of detail and negotiation to securing the number and making sure it actually worked.”

The accompanying PSA features people acknowledging that they kept quiet after seeing potential abuse because they thought it wasn’t their business or they were unsure about how to help. As the spot progresses, however, they pledge to help by texting 540-540 should the need arise. “I will help you,” declares one of the people in the spot.

On “Signal for Help” going global: Signal for Help has been a huge success story since it was introduced early in the pandemic. In addition to winning the Grand Prix at this year’s Effie Awards Canada and Gold at the recent London International Awards, it accrued real-world use with potentially life-saving implications.

Earlier this month, a teenager in Kentucky used it to signal for help after being abducted by a 61-year-old man who was later apprehended. And in Spain on Friday, police arrested a man after his wife used the signal during a routine traffic stop.

“Any time you create work that becomes part of the culture and you see it coming back into your newsfeed, it’s incredibly rewarding,” said Lang. “It’s a powerful feeling to see the agency’s creation being used as intended in potentially life-threatening circumstances, he said.

“Creativity can be used as a force for good, as much as it’s used to sell baked beans. What we do can have an effect, which is so gratifying. It’s blown up to such epic proportions purely based on the kindness and goodness of people.”

And we quote: “Chances are that everyone knows a survivor of gendered violence like physical, sexual, or emotional
abuse. And with a higher risk of this abuse during the pandemic, it’s especially crucial that we all know how to help those going through this often-hidden abuse,” said Canadian Women’s Foundation president and CEO Paulette Senior. “Offering judgement-free support is something we can all prepare ourselves for.”

Chris Powell