Cracking the code: The advertising cliché of the smartphone age

Marketeers are notorious for adopting the next eye-catching branding trend, and the digital age has only increased the options for luring potential customers. From cereal boxes to billboards, quick response, or QR, barcodes are being deployed as a means of offering a digital experience alongside a physical ad.

These two-dimensional codes aren’t just being used in advertising, either. For instance, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is hosting an exhibit entitled Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, which includes QR codes on each pieces’ explanatory placard, and enhanced wireless reception in the gallery, to accommodate visitors’ online explorations of the works they are in front of physically. Another use has developed as, according to the Denver Post, some families have opted to continue their deceased loved ones’ online presence by affixing QR codes to their headstones.

They are frequently employed, but are QR codes a driving force toward an end goal? Do QR codes in advertisements exist merely as a banner of “we are relevant,” or do they drive sales, raise awareness, and achieve results? Certainly, these barcodes possess the ability to provide a user with more information than may be readable on traditional marketing collaterals. And these codes can, and do, have a place in storing large amounts of information in one place. Digital boarding passes, for example, are comprised of these two-dimensional images. This technology could also be harnessed to store patient’s medical record or prescription information.

Otherwise, in the realm in which they are most widely used, I don’t believe that QR codes are going to be selling any cereal. One reason is that a large portion of society doesn’t know how to use them. To combat this, when implementing their QR-based backstage pass campaign, Macy’s went with old-fashioned lanyards explaining how to download the appropriate app and access the content. According to Advertising Age, within one month of the launch of this campaign, their YouTube spot demonstrating how to use QRs had received 2,200 views. Which , while, educational for consumers,  does not move them any closer to a point of sale.

Another qualm I have with QR codes is that I don’t believe that there is generally enough motivation for the consumer to access his phone, find the appropriate application, snap a picture of the code, and then tap into the content the code channels him to. Merely sticking a QR code on a package is not a worthwhile argument that a consumer should engage with a brand online. Furthermore, as Dave Wieneke from Advertising Age argues, QR branding techniques are neither memorable nor compelling.

Perhaps at this point I should concede that much of my disdain for QR codes comes from the fact that not only are they generally overused, or clumsily used, but also unattractive. Whereas, some of the new augmented reality technologies offer hope for a more aesthetic way to incorporate a digital component into a physical world. These options extend from the two-dimensional, updatable barcodes offered by Microsoft Tag to the “real world object recognition protocol” developed by Layar. Hopefully, both consumers and advertisers will consider the QR code an introduction, merely to be glossed over, to pursue more dynamic barcoding options.

Hanna Woodburn

Hanna Woodburn is a former CCT student. She found herself in D.C. following the completion of her undergraduate degree from Colorado Christian University in Denver, CO where she studied Human Communication, Marketing, and Business. For three years prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked for the legislative branch where she specialized in constituent communication and outreach efforts while managing a broad portfolio of legislative issues. In CCT, she is interested in gaining a greater understanding of how communication and technology can impart change on organizations, among other topics. Hanna blogs for gnovis on art, media, and our digital lives. She also can be found on Tumblr where her blog is predominately about her cat.