March 8, 2012What QR codes teach us about advertising

Quick question. Have you ever used a QR code? Maybe you don’t even know what a QR code is. If you don’t, it’s one of those funny barcode things you’re supposed to take a photo of with your smartphone and it then points you in the direction of a website.

“Oh, like a link,” you say.
“Yes, almost exactly like a link, except you have to go through the rigmarole of standing up close to the QR code and taking a picture, et cetera.”
“So why not just have some text that says ‘visit!’ instead?”

Okay, that’s an over-simplification, but you get the idea. QR codes are needlessly complex and have been met with total indifference by the public. Plus, you don’t know where the link takes you until you’ve scanned it, leaving you open to hackers and hijackers.

All in all, QR codes are considered to be a #fail.

That’s not just my opinion, by the way. The last week has seen the viral spread of wicked spoof website “People Scanning QR Codes” (hint: it’s empty) and even The Guardian have got in on the action with their “WTF QR Codes?” tumblr.

QR codes don’t work because they put a barrier between the customer and the call to action. In short, they’re bad conversion science.

  • How many people have smartphones? (Not everyone) 
  • How many people have the QR code app (very few) 
  • How many people are prepared to spend sixty seconds snapping the QR code and processing it, with no guarantee as to where it will take you? (even fewer).

Compare QR codes to the pathway provided by a link, or even a memorable ad campaign or company name.

How many people will “visit!” if they see it on a poster (a few). How many people will remember it and visit later (maybe a few more). How many people will remember the phrases “Allday” and “Copywriter” from the poster and search for those terms and find me… or even remember my name when they search for “Copywriter” – perhaps many, many more.

QR codes narrow possibilities and reduce the number of people a campaign reaches.
Exactly the opposite of what a good campaign — and good copy — should do.

Don’t be a QR code. Keep your writing simple.

Good copy should always be written to maximise the number of people who read and act on your message. There is a very simple formula for this.

To get people interested, start with a bold headline. The fact is only 5-10% of people read the body copy of advertisments. Of course, those 10% are more interested in what you’re selling. So the body copy has to make the sale. That’s why you must make the sale as quickly as possible and always choose the path of least resistance.

Set out quickly what you’re selling. Follow up with an immediate reason to buy the product. Then a call to action (preferably not a QR code). It’s really that simple.

Good copywriting isn’t a secret formula. It’s about simplicity.

How to write an ad:

Start with a bold headline.

  • Brief words that explain what the product is.
  • Short sentence or two that tantalises the reader and explains why they should want it.
  • A call to action, to get them in the shops.

A classic ad that follows the formula

If you understand this, you’re well on your way to being a brilliant copywriter. You, too, can write ads.


How to write a creative ad:

  • If you want to write creative ads, you just add a memorable story, plotline, or gimmick to the mix.
  • Use tone of voice to convey your brand’s sense of style, and witty writing that will keep people entertained.

My favourite ad from the last year has to be Cravendale’s ‘cats with opposable thumbs’.

It uses a creative idea (cats have developed thumbs so they can steal milk) to explain the product (milk),
the reason (it’s Cravendale the cats are after, it’s superior),
and a call to action (the whole ad is an exhortation to buy Cravendale milk).

There’s your basic formula.

The ad also uses a brilliant, unique tone of voice (Tim Curry’s voice, to be precise) and a great catchphrase “jog on, kitties!” to ensure you remember the ad after it’s over (no QR codes required).

Coming up with a great idea like this is much harder than just writing good copy. But it still follows the copywriter’s simple formula.

All good ads do.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 8th, 2012 at 3:18 pm and is filed under Advertising, Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Eric Hendley says:

    This blog has really given me something to think about. I am a graphic design student and I have used the notorious QR code in my promotional campaign. I think you have enlightened me to the draw backs to using them and the “wicked spoof” or “WTF QR code” website. The examples of good copywriting were great choices, nicely done.


  2. I’ve been thinking about writing a post like this for weeks, Now you’ve beaten me to it.

    I suppose some might argue that QR codes are an additional channel – useful for those who like them, ignore by those who don’t. I still feel they’re obtrusive and a distraction. And I agree that you should make the sell right there and then, rather than handing off to some remote channel and trying to do it there,

    It’s a scattergun approach as opposed to a precision snipe – and because it involves more creative material and more technical skills, it’s more likely to have inconsistencies in terms of tone, phrasing etc.

    As you say, do one thing well, and get the job done there and then.

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