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'Blue Monday': Social Science Marketing Gone Wrong

Happy Blue Monday. It doesn't exist.
PHOTO CREDIT: HURRICANEMAINE/FLICKR

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Today, you might hear, is Blue Monday. According to myth, today, the third Monday of January, is the saddest day of the year.

When I say myth, I mean it. With the holidays passed and a bleak winter still ahead, it may well be a tough time of year for some. But Blue Monday itself isn't real. It doesn't exist. It is a hoax. And if you look into the history of Blue Monday--which started as essentially a PR stunt based on bad science--you will find an important lesson in marketing. 

A Brief History

The mathematic formula that the Blue Monday concept rests its laurels on was published by an academic named Cliff Arnall in the middle of last decade. It was not published in an academic journal. Rather, it was published in a press release. Behind the idea? The public relations firm that worked on behalf of the Sky Travel channel, which had a vested interest in getting people to think a mid-winter trip might brighten their mood.

According to Ben Goldcare of the Bad Science blog, Arnall was not the first academic approached by the PR company. Others were asked to put their name on the pre-written "study" in exchange for money. Arnall--who was not a professor, but a tutor--agreed to do so.

The math behind Blue Monday is laughable, as it attempts to assign value to weather and the time passed since failing on a New Year's Resolution. It includes one wholly undefined value. Then, poof! The third Monday of January, people, is the saddest day of the year!

"The fact is that Cliff Arnall's equations are stupid, and some fail even to make mathematical sense on their own terms," Goldcare wrote in a separate criticism for The Guardian.

You're welcome to form your own opinion on the ethics of this sort of warped academia. I'd call it pretty scummy. What's more, it's ineffective. While Blue Monday has managed to find a nook in the lexicon, it outlasted the organization it was meant to assist; Sky Travel shut down in 2010.

As for Arnall? He has also worked out a bogus formula to land at the happiest day of the year, which conveniently falls in the summer. For that work, Arnall has acknowledged that he receives checks from Wall's, an ice cream company. You can't make this stuff up.

A Better Way

If you want to use academia as a place to rest your laurels, consider instead seeking existing research and integrating it into your brand, rather than creating some convoluted nonsense to better serve your needs.

That's what Starbucks famously did, when it embraced the concept of the "Third Place." The term was coined by sociologist Ray Olderburg in the late 1980s, and it refers to a location away from peoples' homes (the first place) and workplaces (the second place) that can serve as a communal hub.

Starbucks was quick to embrace the idea, building it into not only the way it does business (by encouraging a sense of community in its stores), but also into its marketing and PR efforts. Starbucks actively describes itself as a Third Place for customers. In the boardroom, the company implemented Third Place essentials like free wireless Internet and sought to create a casual working atmosphere that facilitated long stays.

Inevietably, academic and business studies would follow, seeking to find out whether Starbucks could put its money where its mouth was, measuring the company's practices against Oldenburg's checklist. Because the company actively works to fit within that checkbox, they're situated for success. And that means anytime a "Third Place" study is published about Starbucks, it ultimately meets its PR goals.

Take, for instance, a study released last summer by researchers from West Virginia University. The findings of the research showed that Starbucks created a more comfortable locale than local, independent coffee shops. That may or may not be true; it depends on how you define "friendly." In this case, the researchers focused on Oldenburg's defining traits of the Third Place--or, the very attributes Starbucks has actively built its model and its message around.

This method of using academia is a little bit tricky too, but all marketing is to some extent. Where Starbucks differs from Sky Travel and Blue Monday is that it has built its message around existing research about the Third Place, rather than trying to cook the research up and serve it to the world.

Last updated: Jan 20, 2014




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