QR Codes: What Happens When You Add Technology To Junk Mail

Last Updated Jun 9, 2011 12:42 PM EDT

But is it art?
QR codes are the 21st century version of the CueCat: A technology that marketers love and which consumers could care less about. Soon businesses will understand what the public already knows: QR codes are just another type of junk mail.

If you don't remember the CueCat it is with good reason. It was a cat-shaped device which came out in the 1990s and was supposed to be a companion to your computer's mouse. Get it? Readers were supposed to use it for scanning bar codes in magazines which would take them to a (hopefully) related web site. Sound familiar?

Marketers added bar codes to their ads. Some publishers saw the Cat as the next big thing for print media. Forbes and Wired were so enraptured they added bar codes to stories and mass-mailed Cats to readers. For a while they were as ubiquitous as AOL's compact discs. (Whatever happened to AOL?)

Like those discs, readers couldn't throw CueCats away fast enough.

Great, but what's in it for me?

A key factor had been left out of the CueCat ideation that is also missing from QR codes: What's in it for me? Why should I, Phillip J. Consumer, take the time to use this thing so you can advertise me? Yeah, I couldn't come up with a reason either.

One of the basic rules of selling things is that it is easiest when the thing makes things easier for the purchaser. The QR code makes things easier for the seller without doing anything for me. Nonetheless we continue to see these silly things hyped as if they were actually going to provide me a benefit. Which explains the one place QR codes have caught on: As another form of airline boarding pass. I don't have print it out and worry about whether I remembered to bring it with me? That's a benefit.

If you think I am exaggerating claims being made about these codes, consider this:

QR codes can be used to compose an e-mail or text message, display text to the user and more. The primary purpose of the QR code, however, is to act as an effective marketing tool. These codes are heavily ingrained into marketing campaigns, providing customers with the opportunity to gain access to special deals, exclusive content and even additional brand insight with something as handy as a smartphone.

While much is made of the fact that everyone is already carrying the technology to scan these things, unless you own an iPhone you have the additional step of downloading the app to scan the code to be advertised at. Suddenly junk mail looks quite efficient.

None of this has stopped people from declaring "2011 the Year of the QR code." And where marketers lead media is sure to follow. Fast Company has an article on 13 more ways to use QR codes. More? I'd settle for one. (You really have to read the list to see how dumb the ideas are.)

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of all this silliness is the much-ridiculed CueCat itself. Now it can retire into the shadows, confident that there's a new contender as an icon for dumb ideas.

Photo: WikiCommons


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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.