QR Codes are everywhere. But does anyone like them?


I open a magazine, and the first advertisement I see has a QR code in it. I stroll to the bus stop, and again, I see a QR code. The front of a newspaper I grab on my trip has one inside its front cover, too.

I have a smartphone that can scan them. But I don’t.

And nobody else I know does, either. Marketers love them, but do consumers? It seems not.

QR codes, those maze-like, barcode-esque square black-and-white images you see popping up everywhere these days, are supposed to be one of those next big things. They’re supposed to add a dynamic component to advertisements and marketing campaigns, creating a portal in which users can be instantly whisked away to the next stage of the company’s experience. Only this isn’t usually what happens.

Whenever I scan a QR code, I’m underwhelmed. Sometimes it’s to a page that adds no new information from the ad. Rarely does it add value. And I never know unless I scan it, but I’m not apt to, because there’s no tangible incentive explained upfront. Is it a waste of time? Probably, or the ad would say otherwise. And it never really does.

Comscore says that 14 million Americans looked up QR codes in 2010. Not a small number, but not a large one considering how many own smartphones and how “everywhere” the codes are these days. And what about those who scanned more than one or two? Are there any? Of course the curious mind will try a code once or twice. It’s new and exciting. Something tells me few keep trying after the excitement turns to disappontment.

If I’m going to take out my iPhone and open my scanning app, it needs to be worth it. If a QR code is simply taking me to a company website, forget it—if I care enough, I’ll do that myself on my own time. What are the odds I want to immediately engage with a product upon seeing its ad? That’s a little in-your-face and not a realistic circumstance.

There are times and places for QR to shine. That bus stop I mentioned? The transit company should have QR codes at every stop that deliver transporation schedules to waiting commuters, perhaps even offer real-time bus tracking. This is a value-add, where you have people who are not running by an ad, but waiting near it, and who are a specific audience—transit users. This means you have people who can benefit from the code and are in a situation where scanning it makes sense. The overwhelming majority of QR codes today are not value-adds like this.

The idea, the concept, the theory—it has the potential to go mainstream, to become ubiquitous. Will it? The odds are not favourable. In time, QR codes will carve out niches, to be sure, and creative minds will manage to do amazing things with them. But will it ever be a vital weapon in the marketer’s tool kit? Doubtful.