‘The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott’
Alfred, Lord Tennyson – The Lady of Shalott
Image: William Holman Hunt -The Lady of Shalott
I attended the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain. Not entirely my cup of tea. Rather flat, two dimensional narratives of a romanticised past. Curiously the Pre-Raphaelites were regarded as radical in their day. It’s perhaps very English to express revolt by looking backwards…
I was nonetheless quite taken by a Holman Hunt painting of The Lady of Shalott. It seems to show a beautiful woman caught in a bizarre knitting accident. In fact it refers to a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
In the poem the mysterious Lady of Shalott is imprisoned in a tower, cursed to weave imperfect impressions of the world outside from the reflections she captures in a mirror. She weaves images of the traffic on the road to Camelot, the shepherds, knights, market girls and page boys that pass by her castle prison. But the curse denies her direct sight of life outside and ultimately she is unfulfilled.
‘ ”I am half sick of shadows,” said The Lady of Shalott’
One day The Lady of Shalott steals a glance out of the window at the noble, handsome Sir Lancelot and with that glance the mirror cracks. She escapes her imprisonment in the tower and takes a boat down river to Camelot. At last she can see the world as it truly is.
This may sound daft, but I couldn’t help thinking about market research.
My first job was as a Qualitative Researcher and I guess I was engaged in a form of reportage. Relaying to Clients what consumers thought and did, summarising their behaviour, interpreting their opinions. Like the Lady of Shalott I was weaving imperfect impressions of the world. Reducing culture to basic bullet points, pithy Power Point, vivid verbatims. We were all well aware of the shortcomings of this approach, but it was the best we could do at the time. I recall how, a few years into my career, the introduction of even the smallest piece of video stimulus to a research debrief could revive Clients’ flagging attention. It was the late arrival of actual consumers in the room.
‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’
1 Corinthians 13:12
Perhaps with the social web a mirror has cracked. Disintermediation is the order of the day. We can gain fast, cheap access to raw, unfiltered consumer opinion. We can tame big data to animate culture. We can demolish the distance between concepts and customers. We can bring consumers into the creatives’ office, the innovators’ lab. We can workshop ideas. We can test real time in beta. We can see the world as it truly is. Live and direct. It’s invigorating, liberating, revolutionary. With one bound we are free. But market research is sometimes a frustrating business. I’m aware that there’s always a gap between vision and execution, that there’s a great deal of interesting experimentation going on. But sometimes change seems disappointingly pedestrian. As the great choreographer George Balanchine is reported to have said: ‘What are you waiting for? What are you saving yourselves for? Now is all there is!’
Of course, things rarely turn out quite as we had in mind. And things didn’t turn out well for The Lady of Shalott either. In the poem she meets a tragic end and by the time she reaches Camelot she is dead. The curse has struck.
I have been haunted by this dark conclusion.
Who is the Lady of Shalott? Who is this mysterious figure ‘half sick of shadows’, craving a fuller appreciation of life, but cursed not to enjoy it?
Is it a research industry clinging to the money-spinning methodologies of the old world and struggling to innovate for the new?
Is it the Client community that understands the revolution in theory, but fails properly to embrace it in practice?
Or is it us, the communications specialists, thrilled by the prospect of unmediated access to consumers, but ill equipped to realise it?
Image: John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott
‘Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right -
The leaves upon her falling light -
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song.
The Lady of Shalott.’