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QR Code Fatigue

QR codes have become ubiquitous—just as they’re falling out of favor with advertisers
How ridiculous are QR codes? Scan this one to find out
How ridiculous are QR codes? Scan this one to find outPhoto illustration by 731

When 29-year-old manufacturing worker Michael Hellesen sees a Quick Response code around his hometown of Racine, Wis., he sometimes scans it using an application he downloaded to his Google Android smartphone. More often than not, it takes Hellesen to a brand’s website. “About 80 percent of the time, I’m disappointed that I scanned it,” Hellesen says. “Mostly it’s just curiosity at this point. I’m not actually expecting anything useful.”

QR codes are dense grids of black-and-white boxes, a more sophisticated cousin to the bar code that can hold 100 times more information. The tags can be put to many uses—inventory tracking, event ticketing—but no one has embraced them more visibly than advertisers. They pop up at stores, on posters, and in magazines to deliver coupons or direct shoppers to websites with more product details. QR codes convey “the appearance of being tech savvy,” says Thaddeus Kromelis, a strategist at WPP’s Blue State Digital, which has done work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. Over the last couple of years they’ve become much more common; in December 2011 they appeared in 8.4 percent of all magazine ads, up from 3.6 percent at the start of the year, according to marketing firm Nellymoser.