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QR codes on TV ads: what does it say about ad agencies and their understanding of digital?


When I saw a QR code appear at the end of a retailer’s TV ad I thought I had imagined it. But no, when the ad re-ran at the next ad break there it was in all its glory. The advertiser in question was Waitrose and the QR code features as part of their Christmas TV activity.

End frame from Waitrose's TV ad with QR code

Whilst it’s certainly a novel approach and shows how important digital has become as a response channel, it just felt like the agency was trying to be too clever.

QR codes are presented as providing a great channel for customer response to a press ad, on packaging or via POS to view content or access offers. Many of us will have seen these in magazines or on posters with various case studies of other methods of using them (e.g. in store windows). Earlier this year Facebook was rumoured to be adding them to people’s profile pages, a move that would certainly have raised consumer awareness.

So why do I think this example is too clever for its own good? Well for starters do consumers understand what QR codes are and how to activate them? Research by BBDO & Proximity provides some useful data. This shows much lower usage in the US compared to Japan where the technology has much higher acceptance. There’s little research that supports the usage in the UK though it is likely that the pattern will be similar to the US: high use of smartphones (and their cameras) but low awareness or usage of QR code readers. Equally, it seems unlikely that Waitrose’s target audience will be early adopters of this type of technology.

Aside from the relevance to consumers, is it an appropriate response mechanism for TV? QR codes are fine in magazines where the print quality and resolution ensures that they work. I couldn’t get it to work at all: either via pausing or trying to scan the last 2 seconds of the ad. Did anyone test this? And by test I mean run the ad the way most of us view TV, sat on a sofa at a variable distance from the set. This in itself is likely to have rendered it pointless: anyone who noticed it would have missed it by the time it registered.

This feels like an agency-led idea where the agency view is that QR codes are cutting edge (or more so than just having a URL). Either that, or it in some way brings a level of integration to a traditional TV campaign. The online elements of the campaign involved the obligatory microsite (with the URL promoted on the ads) and a Christmas iPhone app . The QR code was there to take visitors to the App Store to download it. Yet nowhere in the ad was any attempt made to actually inform audiences of the online content. Featuring the URL almost becomes a bolt-on as there’s no explicit incentive for non-customers to visit the site.

Waitrose aren’t the only brand to do this. M & S’ Christmas campaign uses various calls to action. Some ads festure the website URL whereas the 60 second version tells viewers to search online for “M & S Helper”. Top marks for use of a search phrase to direct consumers but less so for the failure to link the ad and content. We all get the ad theme “Don’t put a foot wrong this Christmas” but in a 60s ad, couldn’t the benefits of the online helper have been more explicitly pushed? Ditto for Waitrose, why not promote the app via the ad?

Are agencies still so addicted to the creative execution that the overall benefit to the brand gets diluted? Based on these campaigns, I’d say yes.

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