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.

6 thoughts on “QR Codes, The Loneliest Of Creatures

  1. The concept behind a QR code in advertising is so ridiculously counter-intuitive in a world where Ad-blocking software sits on the top of the download pile. Who wants to DO SOMETHING to see more ads?

    • Not many people, that’s for sure. Let’s see, if 15% of people notice the ad in the first place, of which 5% actually read it closely enough to digest the message, of which 3% are interested in what they read, of which 2% think “maybe it’d be good to pull out my phone to scan that code to learn more,” of which 1% actually stop and do it, that’d be … yikes, my calculator doesn’t handle percentages that small.

      Joel, thanks for the added perspective.

  2. I’m one of those consumers who actually is still interested to see what’s behind the QR code. However, most of the time the content that’s unlocked is way disappointing. Marketer’s still don’t get it….

  3. Thanks for adding your POV, Ashley. You’re surely in the minority, but also you’re a curious person who likes to learn and look into things more than most people.

    But that said, the poor content behind many QR Codes has probably ‘scared away’ a good amount of potential users who tried a code or two, saw it wasn’t worth it, and then gave up on them.

    A real example of poorly-planned content: the last time I was hiring for an open position, one of the resumes I received had a QR Code in its header next to the contact information. After seeing that the candidate was a pretty good fit experience-wise, I bit. I was curious to see how she was using the code (the search was for a digital marketing job, after all).

    I scanned the code next to her contact information and it led to a web page with… her contact information. Just her name, address, phone number and email, i.e., exactly what I had just read prior to having to get my phone, scan, wait for the browser. Her resume was added to the “pass” pile for lack of compassion for the end user (and maybe a lack of common sense).

      • Yes, a video would have been a positive if it showed her articulately explaining her qualifications and why she was interested in the job. I’d have been impressed by the effort and customization. But the flip side would have been an video that was inarticulate or made her seem immature, etc. So ultimately the content could help or hurt.

        If the code pulled up relevant work samples / portfolio, that could be helpful, too.

        Either way, I think the QR Code should have included a caption to indicate what it pointed to, so the reader could make an informed decision about whether it was of interest or not. The one I saw, just like you see in a lot of ads, was presented as a mystery. So not only did it ask the reader to take an action, but did so without saying why.

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