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Whether tomorrow’s a Blue Monday or a Happy Monday it’s still only all about PR

January 17th, 2010

Dr Petra

Tomorrow (18 January 2010) is the third Monday of the month, a day that’s become known as ‘Blue Monday’.

Launched in 2004 by Sky Travel and PR company Porter Novelli, the day was to be promoted using a formula to prove the day was more depressing than any other (and encourage people to book a holiday).

A number of psychologists were approached to front the formula (including myself). Perhaps unsurprisingly most refused. One, Cliff Arnall, accepted and since then has been promoting the Blue Monday campaign.

Over the years it has morphed from an event to sell holidays and been appropriated by other commercial companies (such as Travelodge) and charities like the Samaritans, Depression Alliance and the Mental Health Foundation.

Journalists all over the world have bookmarked the date so every year we see the story repeated without question.

But there’s a backplot to this story. Numerous bloggers including Ben Goldacre, Vaughan at Mind Hacks, Steve of Irregular Shed and myself have all questioned the accuracy of the formula, the appropriateness of using a flawed formula by mental health campaigns, and the qualifications of Mr Arnall who fronted the formula.

In news coverage Mr Arnall has consistently been described as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ (he is neither) and as a lecturer in psychology at the University of Cardiff (also not true). He has always maintained he invented the formula rather than it being created by a PR company, and yet has refused all invitations to defend the mathematics behind the formula.

Critics argue Mr Arnall used the formula (and others he has been involved in fronting) to promote himself but as a by-product has misrepresented science and mental health. Mr Arnall argues he is engaged in science communication and is helping mental health. He has also threatened legal action against those questioning his work.

The media have also come under fire from critics who have argued journalists have been persistently lazy about this story, failing to ever clarify the key errors over Mr Arnall’s qualifications and place of employment, and not taking a critical stance over the accuracy of the formula or the use of it by mental health groups.

However it has proved a difficult concept to challenge since those hosting health-related awareness and fundraising activities based on the day argue that it’s in a good cause and should not be challenged. Indeed it seems evidence based approaches can be ignored if the overall aim is to raise cash or consciousness. Unfortunately suggesting depression is ‘worse’ on one particular day, is comparable with feeling a bit blue, or can be overcome by purchasing a product or just thinking positively is not particularly helpful to those genuinely affected by depression.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s Blue Monday a number of bloggers have already raised concerns about the formula and Mr Arnall (see here, here and here for example).

But now it seems Blue Monday is no more. In the Telegraph Mr Arnall explains we should forget all about Blue Monday, and instead call the day Happy Monday.

This time around he has no formula to support his claim, nor has he admitted any error in the formula he previously promoted for Blue Monday.

A clue to this about face comes from Mr Arnall’s new job title, a ‘freelance happiness guru’, and his business – ‘happiness consultancy’.

So while previous outings of Blue Monday aimed to promote travel and hotel companies or mental health charities, this year’s rebranded ‘Happy Monday’ is arguably designed to promote Mr Arnall’s ‘happiness consultancy’.

Worryingly within the Telegraph piece linked above Mr Arnall argues that telling people to anticipate a day as depressing might be a self fulfilling prophecy but takes no apparent responsibility for his role in this activity, nor for the countless businesses (and journalists) who continue to cash in on the day.

There’s also a twitter campaign #happymonday that seems to be running as an alternative to the previous Blue Monday campaign and allegedly protesting against the commercial use of the day/formula. But whether this is separate to Mr Arnall’s Happy Monday campaign isn’t clear.

So tomorrow Mr Arnall will be telling us it’s now Happy Monday, while countless media outlets will either regurgitate the Blue Monday story without question, or will promote commercial companies using the formula/day to plug their products.

See how many stories you spot – and if any of them treat this story critically. To help I’ve set up #BadBlueMonday where you can share media coverage of Blue Monday (and list companies using the day to promote their products and services). My hunch is despite Mr Arnall’s efforts to rebrand the day, for the most of the media the third Monday in January will be forever Blue.

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