QR codes are all the rage. Who ever thought something that looks like it came out of a dot matrix printer from the ’90’s could be such a powerful marketing tool in 2011?

But I’ve got a bone to pick with marketers who use QR codes. You’re well on your way to a viral social media nightmare that you cannot possibly imagine, and your cute little QR code is going to be to blame.

Don’t believe me? OK. Fine. Let me give you an interactive demonstration. Ready your smart phone, dear reader!

Adorable Bunny
Scan for Adorable Bunny Video

Go ahead. Scan it. It’s SFW, I promise. I’ll wait.

Now, if you’re done soiling yourself, I hope you can see my point. Did I tell you where the QR code was going to go? No. I told you what you might see if you scan the code (no spoilers here, you have to scan it).

Now imagine what would happen if, say, I – Nick Armstrong of WTF Marketing – saw this lovely QR code from one of my loose competitors:


Now, I love Reu (owner of RFI) — he’s a fantastic fellow. But he’s one of the only people in Fort Collins who’ve put out a public QR code for their business, so I’m forced to use his as an example of how it can all go horribly wrong.

I had the thought that, if I had a QR code sticker, or you know – photoshop and a high-efficiency color printer, I could “amend” Reu’s QR code advertisement. You can’t even tell I’ve modified the above image.

In case that QR Code is too small for you to scan, here it is:

QR Code from RFI Poster

I’m reasonably sure that Reu didn’t have that in mind when he created that ad. Now, stickers can be printed off my simple deskjet on $5 Avery paper. I’m now armed with a swarm of PR-damaging QR codes to bitchslap my competition’s reputation back to the stone age.

Aside the fact that I’ve blogged about this, there’s no proof it was me, and I can get away with impunity. Sorry, Reu.

I’d never do this. But the fact that I thought about it implies that someone else probably has – someone with less moral scruples than me. And that someone is out there right now screwing with your QR codes. Imagine what would happen if they didn’t have any remorse as to what they linked to? Maybe goat porn? You betcha.

Worse still, when the company gives no indication of where their QR code goes (Reu did in his poster, but it’s not immediately obvious) — it’s not clear what action the user is going to be expecting when they scan the code. I saw one on the back of a Heinz Ketchup  bottle that said, “Send ‘Food’ to 12345 or Scan this QR Code”. Am I expecting to send a text message? QR codes can do that, you know. Or generate a phone call, or send me a business card or text display. What am I supposed to expect?

Remember that old rule for making good presentations: Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you told ’em? This should be the de facto standard golden rule for marketers. If you print something, expect people to misinterpret (or in their heads, “interpret”) your marketing message unless (and even if) you are explicitly clear about it.

All in all, don’t be afraid to use QR codes. Just tell the consumer what to expect when they scan it — and check in on your QR codes after you’ve posted ’em to make sure nobody like me has screwed with them.

(Header photo: How do you like my new QR code tattoo?)