Marketing fail: QR Codes in the metro

Marketing fail: QR Codes in the metro

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For those who are not familiar with QR Codes, they are black and white square bar codes that contain encoded information, usually a URL to a website, as you can see here. Those QR Codes are becoming more and more used in ads, especially in the Montreal metro, the city’s public transportation system. It seems quite a few marketing and advertising agencies believe it is the future of marketing.

Well, they are wrong. QR Codes are not the future of marketing, at least not in the public transit. And here’s why:

They assume everyone has a smartphone
To be able to scan a QR Code, you necessarily need a smartphone with an app that will decode it. Unfortunately, most Canadians don’t have a smartphone. While some surveys hint that only 33% of Canadians have one, more optimistic studies reveal that 41% of the population has a smartphone. That leaves out at least 59% of the population, assuming that 2 out of 5 metro users have an iPhone, Android or BlackBerry. It’s a lot.

I’m not a marketing guru, but I thought the goal of ads were to reach as many people as possible to sell a product or a service. How can this be accomplished if the technology required to read an ad excludes to begin with 59% of potential customers? I would be very curious to find out if these ads sell at all.

They assume there’s internet in metro tunnels
The next big mistake marketing and advertising agencies do when they print ads with QR Codes for the Montreal metro is that they assume we will have access to the encrypted information.

While smartphones users may be able to use a QR Code app to read text or data, they cannot access any URL while using public transit. Why is that? Oh, right, there is no internet in the metro tunnels! The app used to scan the code cannot redirect anywhere since there is no wifi or 3G connection.

Here’s the mistake you get on an iPhone after trying to read a QR Code that would lead you to a website.

Considering this flaw, I’m led to believe that the people who did those ads never ever took the metro, or they would have known that putting QR Codes redirecting to a URL down there is both futile and a waste of money.

They assume it’s easy
Alright, let’s be fair. Using a scan app isn’t especially hard. But it requires many unnecessary steps. Why should smartphone users have to take their phone out of their pocket, turn it on, open the QR Code scan app, place themselves in front of the code and then take a photo? Why should they do all these steps only to see a URL? Which, ah, I almost forgot, they cannot see anyway since they are in the metro and there is no internet…

Take this ad by Parks Canada. It’s well done and I really appreciate the effort of making the QR Code big. However, if anyone wants to scan the code, they will have to be sat in front of it and lucky enough (as I was) so there will be no one sitting on that chair below. Once I scan, I get the mistake I showed you earlier.

Let’s say I really wanted to visit Louis-S.-St-Laurent though. Where’s the website URL on the poster? There’s none. The only way I can visit it later is look it up on Google when I’m at home (assuming I remember). Bad, bad marketing call.


QR Codes overall are a hassle. Most people don’t have a smartphone. Smartphone users don’t want to do extra work to have access to information. Agencies are trying to sell me things, not the opposite. And besides, it doesn’t even work in the Montreal metro. So why bother?

About the author

Tina Mailhot-Roberge is a graphic designer, illustrator and co-founder of Veodesign. She holds a BFA in Design from Concordia University, Montréal. She loves to help people and wirte about arts, design, web and technology. Find her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.