QR Codes



What is that boxy bundle of jumbled pixels? It’s a Quick Response, or QR, code! QR codes originated, (and are now commonplace), in the tech-happy nation of Japan, and they are now beginning to find their way across the Pacific and into the United States (Lyne, 2009).

QR codes are much like bar codes, except they can store and present a much larger quantity of data (Lyne, 2009). These diminutive 2-D codes can store information for a wide variety of things, from URL links, to geographic coordinates, text, and even contact information (Trapani, 2010). The other advantage QR codes have over their bar code brethren is that they do not require a burdensome scanner (Lyne, 2009). QR codes can easily and quickly be scanned by a smart phone. In fact, an increasing number of mobile phone manufacturers are pre-installing stock QR scanners in new devices. Seven of Nokia’s new models include QR scanners (Smolski, 2009).

According to Fast Company, an online trade magazine that covers emerging business practices, QR codes appear to be gaining ground among advertisers. The music and media conference/festival, South by Southwest (SXSW) used QR codes throughout last year’s event. They appeared on flyers, business cards, posters, and even t-shirts. Additionally, search king Google and, potentially, social media heavyweight Facebook are experimenting with QR codes (Trapani, 2010).

Reasons to Use

As aforementioned, QR codes can store a great deal of data, and can provide virtually instant access to supplementary brand content. This is the primary, and most overt, reason that advertisers are using them. They can be used to supplement traditional ads. For instance, during Internet Week 2010, advertising agency NYC Media gathered five New York-based agencies to participate in interactive billboards in Times Square (Van Grove, 2010). These massive digital billboards would have been normal for Times Square, but they were outfitted with huge QR codes that directed smart phone users to each different agency’s website.

Ad Agency 311 boasts new online presence with the help of a QR code


In this age of multi-directional media interaction, QR codes seem to fit right in. They can convert traditional one-way tangible advertisements, like billboards or print ads, into interactive messages. Often, targets may be interested in an outdoor or magazine advertisement, but forget it or are too lazy to take the time to look it up. With QR codes, targets can simply scan the code and be given more information.

Also, environmentally-minded businesses can utilize QR codes to their advantage. At SXSW, every attendee’s name badge had a QR code, which limited paper waste by cutting out the need to manually enter information on data sheets (Trapani, 2010).
Of course, as with most emerging advertising methods, the excitement building around QR codes is based chiefly on the potential for them that has yet to be unlocked.

All 2010 SXSW Name Badges had QR codes


There are two obvious limitations to QR code technology. First, targets can only access the code’s data if they have a smart phone. Those that have older mobile phone models without Internet access will be left out of the loop. Therefore, if an agency builds an ad’s focus around a QR code, they will automatically be leaving some people out. Of course, many users are switching (or already have switched) from a conventional phone to a smart phone (Vallacari, 2010). So, this will be less of a problem in the future.

Second, for those that do have smart phones, they still are required to download a QR scanner app to enable their phone to scan. As previously stated, some phones are beginning to come standard with scanners, but most people will have to download an app.

There are some other disadvantages, though. Specifically, there is not currently a very high level of awareness about this new technology, and some think it could just be a passing fad (Trapani, 2010). However, many also believe that with the weight of Google and Facebook behind the technology, people will quickly pick up on them (Trapani, 2010).


One of the best reasons to use QR codes is that they can be generated completely free of charge (Smolski, 2009). There are myriad online generators, (like this one and this one), some of which even include other helpful features such as URL shorteners. Therefore, no additional advertising dollars need to be spent to adapt traditional ads for QR interactivity.

Reach and Frequency

Unfortunately, as of right now, the technology does not exist to count hits for individual QR codes. Most QR codes ultimately redirect users to a web page. However, marketers are currently incapable of distinguishing between website hits that came from following a QR code link and hits from those who simply visited the site manually (Lyne, 2009). Since specific numbers cannot be calculated, traditional reach and frequency measures must be used and adjusted to the type of ad running. For example, if the QR code is placed on a billboard, reach and frequency methods for billboards must be employed.


Since QR codes are typically married with other forms of advertising, scheduling varies greatly. Just as reach and frequency measurement techniques must be adjusted, scheduling of ads with QR codes must be tailored to fit each individual category of advertisement. Advertisers must analyze the costs and effectiveness of the various media vehicles independently within the scope of the campaign. QR codes will typically be used as an add-on to enhance an existing advertisement.


The impact of QR codes has yet to be fully realized. Still, they have the potential to drastically enhance the effectiveness of certain forms of advertising. Out of home ads can be positively affected by the supplementation of QR codes. Magazine ads also have a lot to gain by using QR codes. They could be added to posters, flyers, and business cards as well. TV could implement them, but probably with less success.

Audience Qualities

As of now, the few that are using QR codes in the United States are mostly those that are alpha geeks (Trapani, 2010). But, as awareness spreads, those most likely to use QR codes are those that probably already have a web presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and/or Myspace (Lyne, 2009). Users are likely to be younger, but all must possess some technological know-how.


What makes the rise of QR codes so intriguing to advertisers is the response that they invoke: action. This response is extremely rare among other forms of advertising. This is why advertisers stress the division of thought between campaign success and sales numbers. Yet, QR codes automatically guarantee action by the target, if used.

In today’s world of advertising, agencies are constantly looking to engage consumers with their clients’ brands. Traditional advertising messages are not nearly as effective, and people would much rather search out a message than be fed a message. QR codes provide the link for consumers to actively engage with a brand because they desire to learn more.

Other Interesting Qualities

QR codes are very flexible. This flexibility makes their future look promising. URL links appear to be the fastest growing use of QR codes, but they can offer much more. They can provide users with product, contact, offer, event, and competition details instantaneously (Lyne, 2009). Many developers are offering incentives for QR use, such as exclusive coupon offers (Lyne, 2009). They could simply link to an embedded YouTube video. It will be interesting to see what new creative uses will be crafted for QR codes. Many sites such as Mashable, Digi-Business, and Memeburn have already posted numerous creative ideas for QR codes. There’s even a blog boasting 101 different creative uses for the technology.

Successful Advertising Using QR Codes

Although QR codes are still in their growing stage, some agencies have already had success using them. One great example of a success story is activism-oriented. Nonpartisan group Women of the Storm teamed up with ScanLife and PR Newswire to display a giant QR code in Times Square to help clean up the Gulf oil spill. When people scanned the tag, they were directed to a mobile Be the One campaign site to watch the video and sign a Gulf clean-up petition. In a week, over 117,000 signatures were collected through the QR code.

The massive QR code in Times Square for the Gulf oil spill clean-up petition

Another highly successful campaign also involved social activism. Suntory, a Japanese brewery, placed QR codes directly on their cans that encouraged carbon offsetting. When scanned, the code resolves to a site where visitors could offset 100g a day of carbon dioxide on Suntory’s dime.

Japanese beer brand Suntory added a QR code to their label to help reduce carbon emission

Finally, a third (and very interesting) example of successful QR use comes from a company that actually revolves its brand around QR codes…and funerals. MemorialTags is a relatively new brand that offers to put together a portfolio of memories and embed them into a QR code that is then “discreetly” affixed to a headstone or memorial bench.

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Lyne, M. (2009, October 15). What is a qr code and why do you need one?. Retrieved from http://searchengineland.com/what-is-a-qr-code-and-why-do-you-need-one-27588

Trapani, G. (2010, March 16). What business card? just scan my qr code. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/1585822/business-card-just-scan-my-qr-code

Smolski, R. (2009, March 5). Qr code and 2d barcode readers. Retrieved from http://2d-code.co.uk/qr-code-readers/

Van Grove, J. (2010, June 10). City of new york blankets times square with giant qr codes. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2010/06/10/internet-week-qr-codes/

Vallacari, J. (2010, February 6). The advantages and disadvantages of today's qr code technology . Retrieved from http://beqrious.com/show/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-today-s-qr-code-technology