QR Codes Are the Roller-Skating Horses of Advertising


QR codes are an intermediate technology at best, a novelty at worst.


This is a picture of a roller-skating horse named Jimmy. I think he is a great analogy to explain why QR codes, those little black-and-white squares in magazines that you're supposed to use as a paper hyperlink, continue to proliferate. Let me explain.

First, the facts. A QR code is a two-dimensional link. They look like this:


In theory, you stumble across this code on a billboard on a magazine page and you point your smartphone at it. Feeding the picture into a special decoding application transforms the image into a URL to which you are directed. Maybe a movie plays or there is more product information. Conceptually, this is neat. People who are looking at paper but connected to the Internet via their phones can combine the two in one seamless experience.

And so advertisers, mostly rationally, are putting more of these codes into their advertisements. An exhaustive survey of QR code use in the top 100 national magazines found a clear upward trend:


But all this really tells us is that advertisers would love to gather data about people who click QR codes. It tells us precisely nothing about whether anyone is actually clicking -- err, photographing -- them. Comscore released data indicating that "14 million people, or 6.2% of mobile users, scanned QR codes in the month of June." Forrester says that about 5 percent of Americans use QR codes. And there is widespread confusion about how precisely these things are supposed to work, despite years of marketers telling us about them, even among tech-friendly groups like college students.

These low adoption rates might be explained by the user-interaction problems that eCommerce-consultant Roman Zenner highlighted in a blog post earlier this week:

If you come across such a harbinger of modern mobility, you grab your smartphone, fire up one of the numerous Apps that are meant to decipher this code, hold your camera in the direction of the code like you were actually taking a picture, wait for the autofocus of your mobile camera to get a clear image and if all works well you are being redirected to some website.

If you really wanted to know about a product that you saw in an ad, wouldn't you rather type its name into Google on your phone and see what comes up? Is it really faster and better to use a QR code that will direct you to part of a marketing campaign rather than getting a broader sweep of information by simply using the browser that you already use all the time on your phone? In the instant cost-benefit analysis I do every time I see a QR code, it has yet to make sense for me to fire up the decoder app I have installed on my phone.

QR codes strike me like they strike Zenner, as a bridge or intermediate technology that will ultimately be swamped by a better technological system down the line. Zenner again:

Rather than being the next big thing, QR codes are nothing more than a bridge technology such as the German BTX or the French Minitel in the eighties - before the Internet as we know it today arrived. They are just a means to an end and one of the few peculiarities our children and grandchildren will wonder about: "Grandpa, you must be joking - people took pictures of paper billboards - WTF?"

What will the full-fledged technology look like? Well, there are several possibilities. One is that paper magazines go away, replaced by fully digital magazines. But even if we assume paper magazines live long into the future, image recognition technologies are going to blow by QR codes. Think Google Image Search on steroids. You'll see an ad for the new Mazda, take a photo of the Mazda in the ad, and that will connect you with information about the car. No code reader necessary. Your phone will act as a general-purpose connector between the real and digital worlds, just like it does now with geolocation.

For now, though, we've got QR codes. And it appears we'll continue to have them. Don't be fooled, though: this is a novelty more than anything else. I think print magazine ads work and I think digital campaigns work. But when I look at a QR code, I don't see the future, I see a roller-skating horse. Advertisers deploying QR codes are like people in 1900 wanting transportation to be faster, saying to themselves, "Well, we've got horses and we've got roller skates -- I think we're on to something! It seems gimmicky, but we're innovating." Meanwhile, inventors in garages were building the first janky, bug-ridden automobiles, the Model T just a few years away.

Image: LIFE Magazine. This horse's name really was Jimmy, as Ruth Lester's editor's note details. The photo was taken in Fort Worth and printed May 19, 1952, and "caused no particular sensation."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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