QR Codes, The Loneliest Of Creatures

QR code example in an American Express "Shop Small" window decal

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The people who created you said you were hip.

 — “QR code? Cool!”

They said that strangers seeking information would turn to you; that they’d pull out expensive smartphones and take your picture.

—  “…they’ll just scan the QR code and, boom, it opens our website.”

— “Can it link to a video?”

— “Sure, great idea!”

— “Awesome!”

Your creators said you were beautiful and cutting-edge.

They said you deserved to be seen in prominent locations:  on colorful ads hanging in airport terminals; on decals in the windows of high-end stores; on posters adorning the walls of busy thoroughfares in our grandest cities.

They inflated you with purpose and self-worth, then sent you out into the world…

… the cold, cold world, where busy people on busy thoroughfares hustle right past you without slowing their step; where smartphone cameras abound –  they were right about that – just none pointed in your direction.

It’s said that the opposite of love isn’t hatred but indifference.

Poor, poor little QR code, you were set up to #fail.


The author of a recent article on Tech Crunch shared an observation that has also struck me over the past couple years:  you see QR (Quick Response) Codes all over the place but never see anyone using them.

The author goes on to speculate that usage may increase if smartphone cameras were to more naturally scan QR Codes.

I’m skeptical, but perhaps easier scanning might yield more QR code usage in certain scenarios, such as:

  • Scanning a code yields an immediate and meaningful benefit, like getting a coupon for a product you’re just about to purchase
  • Someone sitting leisurely with a nearby mobile phone happens to come across a print ad for a product and/or offer that closely matches a current need (an infrequent situation to begin with)

However, one current QR Code usage that’s simply a losing proposition:  out-of-home (OOH) ads with QR codes that lead to more information about the product or service being advertised.

There is no shortage of such examples — you see them on posters, billboards, store-window decals, etc. This week I saw one on the side of a city bus.

QR codes in OOH brand-awareness creative represent wishful thinking that’s out of touch with actual consumer behavior.

No matter how simple the scanning technology, all the enthusiasm in the corporate world will not make people interrupt their activities —whether that may be walking to meet a friend, looking for a snack in the airport or paying a bill at a cash register—to learn more about your product.

QR Codes in OOH promotional material are a waste of space, design effort and whatever time is required to create the landing-page content.

Perhaps in the future QR code technology will evolve and become more commonly used in certain scenarios. But OOH creative? No way. This usage should – and probably will – go the way of Second Life meeting spaces and corporate podcasts.

Surprise is the Spice of Language

I had some fun highlighting an absurdity in my previous post:  the idea that longevity would be classified as a negative. Obviously, for people with a functioning survival instinct — i.e., most us — it’s a wish not a risk.

But there was a good marketing-related reminder in the story.

As mentioned, I was skimming a pamphlet about retirement planning that was full of routine information. I was just about to put it down but at the last second the term “longevity risk” and its inherent ridiculousness grasped my attention.

“Huh? What risk?”

Instead of putting it down I kept reading and, what’s more, I haven’t forgotten the underlying point of what I subsequently read.

The reminder in this is simple but powerful.

The human brain is usually a step ahead, filling in what it expects to hear or read. And as everyone knows, predictable is boring.

We don’t pay much attention to the predictable — not in ads, not in copy, and not in spoken words.

I’m struck by the impact an unusual turn of phrase can have during a meeting. It’s amazing how even just a little unexpected and/or humorous wording can grab an otherwise drifting audience. And if people laugh, all the better — others who were secretly peeking at their mobile phones look up.

There’s an interesting passage about this topic in the book Persuasive Online Copywriting called “Surprising Boca.”  It includes this explanation:

“In 1861 Paul Broca identified the section of the brain involved in speech production…The brain does its job by learning the rules about how we talk and then, based on those rules, learns to skip over the parts of what we hear that we expect to encounter.”

An element of surprise doesn’t have to be intentional to work; for example, the almost-discarded retirement-planning pamphlet.

Or, some of my best staff-meeting humor:  often unintentional, but always effective.

Take Me, Portfolio Be Damned

I recently received a pamphlet with retirement-planning information from my employer’s 401k administrator that highlighted a handful of risks to be aware of.

It started with all the usual suspects, like not spreading one’s investments across a diversified portfolio… blah, blah, blah, was just about to put it down…

But then, the last one was awesome. “Longevity Risk.”

My tolerance—no my appetite—for risk was suddenly cast in a whole new light.

Longevity Risk, I look you in the eye and I laugh in your face. I scoff at you and I dare you. And if you grab hold and have your way with me, and if you never let me go, then so be it.

You, Longevity, are a risk I’m willing to bear.

The Contrast Principle

The contrast principle (or contrast effect) says that when you experience two similar things in succession, your perception of the second is influenced by the first.

For example, when you pick up a heavy box and then a light one, the second one will feel lighter than it really is. Or to quote a colorful example from Robert Cialdini’s excellent book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

If we are talking to a beautiful woman at a cocktail party and are then joined by an unattractive one, the second woman will strike us as less attractive than she actually is.”

(Sorry guys, the same holds true when women look at us.)

So why is contrast principle as the name of this blog?

Foremost because I find it to be an interesting insight into the way we perceive and experience the world. It’s a good example of how our perceptions are shaped and influenced by external experiences in ways we’re often only vaguely—or not at all—aware of.

I also like it for the title because my intention is to primarily write about marketing-related topics, and the contrast principle is applied in salesmanship. When you’re quoted a high price and then a lower one, the second seems lower than it really is.

An observation of this principle in the wild:  Costco’s watch case.

At my local Costco, the case always contains a handful of watches in the $5,000 – $10,000 price range. These watches are placed at the side of the display case near the main aisle, so they’re likely the first watches most consumers see as they approach the case.

Between their location and appearance, you can’t help but look at the $5,000, $6,000+ watches.

The $950 Tag Heuer you see two steps away looks surprisingly inexpensive. “I can afford that,” I always hear myself thinking. And the $89 sports watch? Why not pick one up for weekend hikes and working out — they’re almost giving them away.

I doubt there are many impulse purchases of the small selection of high-end watches, but my guess is that their main value to Costco lies in the comparison.

My local Costco store isn’t an anomaly — I saw the same set-up in other branches, including one in another state.

Lastly in terms of choosing “The Contrast Principle” for the blog name, I just like how it sounds.

If you read a post on this blog and then a post on another blog directly thereafter, hopefully the quality of my post doesn’t make the other one seem better than it really is. But if so, it’d be the contract principle in action, in both name and effect.

Looking for Lessons

For a second I thought of “Looking for Lessons” as the name of this blog. But I quickly thought better of it. It’s a terrible name, unless the goal is to induce boredom prior to first line of body copy.

But perhaps it’s excusable as a post title. I like it because, boring as it might sound in copy, that’s what I’m doing.

My intention with this blog is to share observations and ask questions. Perhaps on occasion it might … possibly… hopefully … spark ideas for some readers.

The blog posts will primarily focus on topics related to marketing, digital and otherwise.

But the world is a very interesting place, and you never know what will catch one’s attention or spur a conversation.

I hope that writing this blog will be interesting for me and hopefully at times for others as well.

If I’m at some point I’m at loss for ideas and ask you to guest author a post… kindly say “yes.”