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Are QR codes the wave of the future, or just really annoying?

You would think that some advertising pitches could stand on their own two feet. For instance, there's a bus-shelter ad for a bank near my place.

"Open earlier, open later. Even Sunday," reads the big print. Below it, though, is a blurb promoting the bank's hours and entreating readers to wave their smartphones in the direction of a large, hostile-looking pixilated square at the bottom left.

This is a QR code. It's an image that can be scanned by a smartphone, linking the user to a website. But then, you already know what a QR code is, because suddenly the things are everywhere.

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They are stamped onto posters, emblazoned onto ads, burned onto business cards, knitted into newspapers. Large businesses are pushing them, and small businesses are worried about missing out if they don't pixel up. They're on street posters and ads for live shows. A friend in the ministry tells of a recent meeting at which it was earnestly suggested that a QR code should go on the masthead of the church newsletter.

And yet, I will confess to you: Before this week, I had never scanned a QR code. Nor, in my daily life, have I encountered anyone truly stoked about scanning QR codes, for all their practicality.

A new report from Comscore – one of the premier Internet ratings firms – says that 14 million Americans looked up QR codes last year, and that they skewed male and wealthy. As numbers go, 14 million isn't nothing. Still, it remains less than overwhelming when you consider that there are 350 million Americans, and smartphones are now issued by obstetricians as they exit the womb.

But if we are surrounded by the things, and already hold in our hands the tools to access them, why haven't QR codes gone well and truly mainstream? Are these things the way of the future, or just the result of marketers talking to themselves?

Ubiquity is an awkward phase that many technologies go through. It's a kind of adolescence, a period of coltish ungainliness that comes between the time that a good idea emerges and the time it's figured out exactly how best to apply itself.

In and of themselves, QR codes are a good idea. On an iPhone, you need to download a QR-code-reading app. Then, you hold the phone's camera over the square QR code until your phone beeps like a supermarket checkout scanner. Within a few seconds, you're whisked to a web page that can tell you more about the pitch in question.

It's possible to do all kinds of neat things with this. Take the ad about the bank's opening hours: It was designed so that scanning the QR code would take the user to a site that would ascertain their position using the phone's built-in GPS, and point them to the nearest branches. See? Not only is the bank open at all hours, but it has locations all around you!

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Marketers love this kind of stuff. It gives them data on who's looking at an ad and who's responding to it. If it elicits a response, it extends the length of a sales pitch past the initial glance and into a protracted browsing session on the phone. At the end of the day, it promises to wring value from advertising dollars.

Plus, it appeals to their aspirational side: Wouldn't it be great if ads, formerly static, became interactive? Thanks to QR codes, your bus shelter – heretofore just another place to stare blankly at display advertising – can become an interactive, multimedia, location-aware, user-specific, customized marketing experience.

The future is grand. Yet I'm having a hard time getting excited.

For one thing, QR codes don't make an ad better. More utilitarian, perhaps, and more measurable, but not better. They're ugly and alienating, and I can only imagine they're a constant heartache for the graphic designers who are being ordered to stick them on their work. Moreover, when an ad features a QR code, it risks ceasing to be a cohesive, self-contained message and instead becoming an exercise in begging people to scan the code.

For another thing, the ability to scan a code – or even the presence of theoretically useful information hiding behind it – doesn't translate into a compelling reason to scan a code. I can imagine why a marketing professional would think that a list of branch locations would be a utilitarian complement to an ad about opening hours. But as a consumer, I'd never have scanned the thing in the first place had it not been my job.

"Useful advertising" is a quintessential Internet-age idea, and something of a fig leaf for intrusive advertisers. It's the notion that ads that are more informative, better tailored, finely targeted and context-aware actually provide a service to the consumer and should therefore be welcomed as liberators. In many instances, they're simply more intrusive and annoying.

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There are trends that are popularized by public excitement – say, Facebook. Then there are trends that come about because marketers think the public ought to be excited by the thought of being marketed to in amazing new ways (say, Facebook ads). QR codes have their use, and they'll find their niche. In the meantime, marketers might learn that a truly effective ad is one that makes me want to buy the product – and not just read another ad.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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