QR Codes, why.. just.. why?
March 30, 2012 5:33 PM   Subscribe

What's up with the proliferation of QR Codes?

I know this isn't really a question with a definable answer, but it's something that has been bugging me for some time. I am very aware that QR Codes have been in use for many years primarily in the warehousing industry as a means of tracking various things, but the current iteration of them as a trendy means of linking to advertisements seems.. well, stupid to me.

First of all, it seems almost exactly like the CueCat, which people universally derided at the time as just another means of spamming people (that required a purchase of a proprietary piece of equipment no less). But I see little to no difference between this and QR Codes. And while it may not be strictly proprietary, you still need specific technology to use QR Codes.

Secondly, it's not like it's even real content being delivered by the QR Code. The only thing I have seen QR Codes delivery is links, and considering the space that a QR Code occupies, it makes no sense to me to put a QR Code where a URL would suffice and take up much less advertising real estate. I understand the limitations of the format, delivering actual data visually takes a lot more space then a QR Code can accommodate, but as it stands.. it's just a really complicated way of linking you to a webpage, which 99 percent of the time is just an advertisement.

Is it because people think they look kinda cool? Is it because of the mystery factor that advertisers love them (people scan them not realizing they are just being sent to an advertisement aka SPAM)? Between seeing people with QR Code tattoos and them littering nearly every hip and "with it" business be it on their business card or even restaurant menus. The best possible use I can think of them would be a Heinlein-esque "Would you like to know more?" type link, but again.. it's just a URL.. why not just have a URL?

Again, I realize this isn't a question with an actual answer. I am just trying to understand how these things have become so ubiquitous.
posted by mediocre to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"it's just a URL.. why not just have a URL?"

Why QR codes are good: Some devices handle text input better than others. Also, some URL are easier to type than others. It's a convenient way to get data into a device quickly and without translation error; you don't have to worry about users transposing or misreading characters.

Why QR codes are ubiquitous and overused: From what I've seen it stems from a proliferation of marketing me-too-ism. My boss read one article about QR codes and now he tries to put them on everything, like it's some kind of value-added synergy of out-of-the-box paradigms.
posted by lekvar at 5:43 PM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

The problem they solve: Typing URLs any longer than a plain domain name on a mobile device (or just remembering them) is cumbersome.

Why they're everywhere: cargo cult marketing.

I use them from time to time if I'm out and about and one's on something that catches my eye.
posted by zsazsa at 5:46 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

QR codes are really good for some things (on business cards, for example, where the recipient can get all your contact info without keying it in), and kind of stupid for other things (simple URLs). As lekvar pointed out, they are good for complicated URLs for directions, etc.

My big problem with their usage is sometimes there is no alternative to the QR code. So if you don't know what it is, too bad. No access for you!
posted by sfkiddo at 5:49 PM on March 30, 2012

I don't know why someone didn't make a simple app to use the camera to read and OCR a shortened URL - or a long one.

CueCat redux. Those who don't know history...
posted by caclwmr4 at 5:53 PM on March 30, 2012

I understand that this really got its start in Japan, where those things were showing up all over the place on billboards and in magazine advertising. It makes even more sense there, because URLs are in Roman letters.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:55 PM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

It can def be very useful. a product i was considering had a QR code that linked to an instructional video about how to use it. Plus any link longer then 15-20 characters is def easier to get to with a QR code.
posted by pyro979 at 6:05 PM on March 30, 2012

I don't know that any advertiser uses it as such, but if I were doing it, I would place a different one pointing to URLs with different querystring parameters so that I could track the effectiveness of advertising in various physical locations. That would be a valuable use, in my mind. It'd be similar to those ads in magazines asking you to specify a 'code' to get your discount.
posted by jangie at 6:20 PM on March 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Advertising is fad driven. One ad exec has a good idea and the other ninety-nine copy it because that's easier than thinking. It's more obvious with QR codes but the creativity-poor ad industry is nothing new.
posted by chairface at 6:36 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

QR codes are a good idea in theory (and when you're in a rush, they do work well for grabbing info). However, it's out-of-control with marketers that don't understand the real-world applications of them.

Putting one on the side of a truck or a billboard? Useless.

Having it on a poster at a tech conference. It works.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 6:43 PM on March 30, 2012

The cue cat required you to be sitting in front of your computer while you were reading a magazine and scan the codes in using a device attached to the PC with a cord. QR codes can be scanned anywhere using a device most people always have with them. I'm not a huge fan of them, but they're far more convenient & practical than the cue cat was.
posted by mattholomew at 6:45 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok, not really an answer, BUT I had to chime in on one point. The best use of QR codes I've seen yet is while we were visiting Space Center Houston. When you walk around the Saturn rocket, there are signs with brief blurbs about the rocket and a QR code. Clicking on the QR code sent you to their website with video, historical information and further details about that part of the rocket. They did a good job of enhancing the experience. It was easier and quicker than having to type in a URL and took you directly to content that was specific to what you were standing in front of.

I have yet to see it done so seamlessly and elegantly in advertising.
posted by defenestrated at 6:46 PM on March 30, 2012

A side effect of the QR code strategy is subtly associating an brand with expensive, hip smartphones, especially iPhones. You make something mundane seem more interesting and exclusive than it is by advertising it via a means you need to spend several hundred dollars to use.
posted by gerryblog at 6:55 PM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I liked their use at the Saint Louis Art Fair, where every artist had a QR code on his or her nameplate. It saves the artists money on marketing postcards and keeps my hands and pockets free, while giving me an easy way to capture a list of URLs of artists I liked in a crowd where typing was inconvenient.
posted by limeonaire at 7:17 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know i am basically alone in this.. But I actively avoid any business slash artist slash clueless ad execs pet slash whatever that depends on QR Codes to deliver anything at all about the product. It is taking the onus of informing the consumer and not only essentially making it a class conflict.. Sorry, not everyone can afford a smartphone.. But it lets them abandon responsibility for providing importantinformationby onlymaking it accessible via code such as the restaurant menu Imentioned that only gave nutrition information in the form of a QR Code.

Also, to the individual who said its nothing like the CueCat.. Your only argument is thatit wasntmobile.. Mobile computing at thetime was exceedingly rare, and everythinghad chords.. if it cameout 5yearsago it would have been mobile and likely hated just the same. Or maybenot, maybe we have justgotten stupider and it would be just as popular..

As an aside, I remember another similar advertising delivery peripheral from the same era that listenedtoy your tv.. Theidea being that ads that used their service would put a toneintotheir commercial that was listenedforby the device, which triggered a browser window and delivery to a url.. Does thissoubdfamiliar toanyone?

PS - sorry about the typing.. Using asubpar tablet and dont want totakeanhour to fix allthe errors..
posted by mediocre at 7:36 PM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

The usefulness of QR codes in some situations has been outlined above - whatever your personal opinion is. The other thing to keep in mind is that agencies are always looking for another way to bill the client, or present their work as cutting-edge/up-to-date. QR codes do both.
posted by smoke at 7:40 PM on March 30, 2012

There was some good commentary on the use and misuse of these in this thread on the blue.
posted by radwolf76 at 7:43 PM on March 30, 2012

I'm not entirely sure that saying "5 years ago, no one would've used this" is a great argument. Five years ago, smartphone proliferation was only predicted; now around a quarter of the country (at least!) has them. You yourself have a tablet, a mobile device that was just a predicted technology not all that long ago. It's actually kind of amazing how quickly mobile devices have caught on. In any case, there are ways of snapping QR codes that don't involve having a smartphone plan; you could use an iPod app and Wi-Fi in some locations, for instance.
posted by limeonaire at 7:49 PM on March 30, 2012

I used one for first time today on my Android. after faffing for ten minutes trying to get the mobile site of the rail company to give me a pdf time table, I noticed the qr code. Downloaded qr app, scanned code (fun!) And it autoloaded a link which autoredirected to the pdf. Brilliant!

Now to get them to supersede the unscannable barcode tattoos I see everywhere.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:53 PM on March 30, 2012

to clarify, the above happened on the train platform and the qr code was on a poster.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:54 PM on March 30, 2012

The big plus of QR over CueCat or the thing that listened to your tv is that readers are available for every smartphone. You don't have to buy a thing that does one function.

You have a very good point about not everyone having a smartphone. Even with smartphones I think things fall short because the default camera app can never read QR codes.

I think QR codes are a great bridge from physical to digital world, but the jump isn't as seamless as it could be and people use them as sole purveyors of information that is critical. Most of the ways they are used are not helpful they are gimmicky. As people said, have a URL there but have the QR right by it to let someone go there quickly. The museum with links to extra content is a great use. In that other thread people mention them being used on real estate listings and such.

But as others have mentioned in this thread, their overuse and misuse is due to being some sort of marketing fad. I don't want to see them go away at all, but I do wish people would start using them in helpful ways.
posted by Phantomx at 7:57 PM on March 30, 2012

Jangie's got it. The QR codes contain some kind of unique identifier, so they're not plain URLs.

What this really means is that they solve a problem that advertisers have. They don't solve a problem that ad-viewers have.

If we want to go to example.com and we have our smartphone handy, it's just as easy to type "example.com" into the browser as it is to scan a QR code that might take us where we want to go, might fail to read, or might take us to a creepy page that says "Hi, I see you scanned this from the bus stop at 38th & Lamar"
posted by adamrice at 7:58 PM on March 30, 2012

To follow on from adamrice's comment on Jangie's comment about unique URLs per QR code. I think this is the real reason. It's not difficult nowadays to print 1000 advertising posters each with a unique URL in the QR code. You can then track which advertising location is the most valuable. In fact if I were a sellers of advertising space (eg JCDecaux) I would offer a unique QR code to all my clients. This way I can then track which of my spaces are most profitable and price accordingly.

Of course all this assumes that the guys putting up the ads know which one to put where!
posted by contentedweb at 9:03 PM on March 30, 2012

Advertising is fad driven. One ad exec has a good idea and the other ninety-nine copy it because that's easier than thinking. It's more obvious with QR codes but the creativity-poor ad industry is nothing new.

I work in advertising and it's usually clients who want things like lots of QR codes and it's our job to help manage their expectations and consult on this. It's clients who are fad driven and "creativity poor," although that's incredibly reductive.
posted by sweetkid at 10:03 PM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

QR codes don't have to be URLs. They can be any digital data.* They can't store a lot, but they can store much more info than a URL.

When I was living full-time in Japan I had one business card made up that had my contact information in a QR code (not a URL to my contact information, but by actual name, address, phone, email. In both English and Japanese phonetic.) For years every Japanese mobile phone has had a camera and a QR reading application standard, so virtually everyone could with a couple keypresses get my full contact info into their phone's address book.

After I had that card made up I never handed out another business card again, people would just snap it and I'd pocket the card. Also people were much more likely to contact me and would know who I was when I contacted them.

For another use is inventory and extended information. For example I've been talking to some electronics parts sellers to put QR codes on their shipments. Often what you get from them is a silver baggie filled with tiny parts that are nearly identical to (literally) a hundred thousand other parts. To get proper information and specifications about the part you need to either google a part number or visit the seller's web site and put in a part number. This is a hassle, especially when you do it many many times a day. A QR code on the package could solve this easily. (Happily, at least two of them seemed to like the idea.)

But are they over used? Oh hell yes.

*(Which has led to weirdness like people embedding images of QR codes in a QR codes.)
posted by Ookseer at 10:25 PM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

PS - sorry about the typing.. Using asubpar tablet and dont want totakeanhour to fix allthe errors..

QR codes are great for loading URLs or adding contact info from a vCard when you have a subpar tablet and don't want to take an hour to fix all the errors.
posted by wutangclan at 10:42 PM on March 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

[OP, sorry, but Ask Metafilter is not the place for a chat about how you feel about QR codes. If you are really asking a question about why they have become popular, just be cool and read the answers, but if this is a rant posing as a question, the post will deleted as chatfilter.]
posted by taz (staff) at 11:20 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've also seen them used in museums based in very touristy areas aimed at non-English speakers.

You scan the code, it detects your browser's language settings then it sends you to a page with all the information about that exhibit in your native language.

Providing that information without a QR code involved people having to repeatedly and accurately type out long URLs in a language (and often alphabet) that was not their own) or for the museum to investing in paper brochures with the exhibit information translated into a ton of languages or foreign language headset tours which stopped visitors from enjoying things at their own pace.

I think it's a really nice usage of the technology.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:35 AM on March 31, 2012

caclwmr4 writes "I don't know why someone didn't make a simple app to use the camera to read and OCR a shortened URL - or a long one."

This is a fairly hard problem in two ways. First you need to build an OCR engine that works with any font regardless of size, colour or background colour. And second the program needs to be smart enough to know when a URL starts (made harder because practically no one prints fully formed URLs so you can't just search for HTTP:// and variants) and harder when the URL ends.

mediocre writes "sorry about the typing.. Using asubpar tablet and dont want totakeanhour to fix allthe errors.."

This is one of the problems QRCodes solve. And it's not just people with poor input devices; there are lots of disabilities where a few button presses (snap picture of QRCode, process result) is a superior method of input.
posted by Mitheral at 2:26 AM on March 31, 2012

A side effect of the QR code strategy is subtly associating an brand with expensive, hip smartphones, especially iPhones.

Worth bearing in mind that iPhones don't actually, out of the box, support the ability to read QR codes.
posted by mr_silver at 6:57 AM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my experience ... The managers don't understand that a qr code is only as useful as the content it links to. It is nifty and cool and easy to slap a qr code on something; but takes a lot more effort to create and maintain content.
posted by yarly at 7:05 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of the proliferation of QR codes has to do with advertisers wanting to be in on the next big thing and grasping at straws for it. Marketing has really changed over the last decade: your company needs a blog, it needs a Flash site, it needs SEO, it needs a Facebook page, hmm maybe it doesn't need a Flash site, it needs a Twitter account, it needs a Google+ account, just kidding it doesn't need a Google+ account, it needs a mobile app, now it REALLY doesn't need a Flash site, what are these square code things do we need those too. It's not "easier than thinking," it's just that media is evolving more rapidly than most companies' marketing strategies, and there's a lot of guesswork and missteps in their attempts to be up to speed.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:09 AM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

20% innovation over bar codes, 80% fad jumping. (For excellent examples of the latter, I cannot recommend WTF QR Codes enough.)
posted by dekathelon at 8:30 AM on March 31, 2012

I think it's basically shadow puppetry between marketing droids. "Oh, they're using this new fad technology, they're obviously hip." same crowd that likes to talk about monetizing the social cloud and leveraging productized SaaS paradigms.

It seems to be useful for some things -- like the art museum example upthread -- but irritatingly ridiculous for advertisements. I'm annoyed by the very suggestion that I would care so much about an ad that I would take the time to scan their QR code. And it's also annoying to see them be all like "Look at how cute we are, we're so hip and technological!" but mostly I find myself resenting the idea that it might actually work, because advertising is manipulation and I don't like to think it actually works.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:39 AM on April 1, 2012

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