Breaking the Code

My very own QR

My very own QR

Black and white is hot this fall. I learned this from Bill Cunningham’s video journal from fashion week in Paris, where unseasonably hot and humid weather during la rentrée had the likes of Anna Wintour stripping down to their $500 T-shirts.

Closer to home, I’ve spotted a more affordable black and white trend this fall: QR (quick response) codes. Like bar codes on a bad hair day, these little square patterns are this year’s must-have accessory. Once you’ve trained your eye to look for QRs, you’ll start to notice them all over the place. The staid bar code is so “out,” as Heidi Klum would say; QR codes are the future of advertising and promotion. That’s what fashion-forward marketers would like us to think, at least.

It’s a simple idea designed to capitalize on, even hasten, the growing shift from desktop to mobile web technology. Now that almost everyone (except my husband) has a smartphone, savvy marketers hope we’ll whip out our phones to scan QR codes whenever and wherever we see them. First, you’ll need to download a free app, such as QR Reader for the iPhone. Then, simply hold your phone’s camera lens directly over the QR square, and presto, a mobile website will open with vital information the marketer desperately wants to share (coupons, prizes, promotional videos, MP3 songs, recipes, assembly instructions, and myriad other product details). Picture the traffic pile-ups in store aisles as we pause to scan each product’s QR code before placing it in our shopping cart. A marketer’s dream or a busy person’s nightmare?

Indeed, the possibilities are endless for transforming the plain vanilla of physical reality into an absolutely fabulous interactive mobile experience. In a QR-enhanced world we can leave our boring GAP basics behind and step into outlandish augmented reality threads by Alexander McQueen. The emperor’s new clothes are waiting for us online.

Fashion by Alexander McQueen (Fall-Winter collection, 2009)

Fashion by Alexander McQueen (Fall-Winter collection, 2009)

Case in point: In New York’s Central Park, a series of QR signs guide visitors through a virtual tour of the park, showing exactly where iconic scenes from Sex and the City were filmed, and even bringing back to life Christo’s famous Gates installation for those who missed its two-week installation in 2005. (Excuse me, but Carrie Bradshaw is not a real person, and if Christo’s exhibit taught us anything it was to enjoy the fleeting euphoria of seeing thousands of saffron banners spicing up the park’s monochrome winter landscape.) The QR signs were part of a 2010 campaign to “re-brand” Central Park, so that a new generation of visitors could “engage more deeply with their park experience,” presumably by watching Dustin Hoffman give his Kramer vs. Kramer son bike-riding lessons on the very same stretch of pavement where they stand, three decades later, peering at their phone screens while real fathers and sons pedal around them. Call me old-fashioned, but one of the pleasures of being in Central Park is the opportunity to exchange the city’s sensory overload of commerce for its recreational equivalent. What would the Kramers, let alone Frederick Law Olmstead, think of this development?

Still, I was thinking it would be helpful if QR codes also included information about how and where products are manufactured. For example, a QR code might show me photos of the Chinese factory where my iPhone was assembled, or of the Asian sweatshop where children sewed the clothes I wear. QR stickers on food might tell me if the produce was picked by migrant workers, or if the hamburger came from cattle raised in a CAFO.

I’m frustrated, but not surprised, that marketers are so eager to feed our growing addiction to web-mediated reality. After all, the less we are “in the moment,” the more susceptible we are to their messaging. Advertising tells us so much, and so little, about the products we buy and the brands we love. Tethered to our electronic devices, we are bombarded with information, most of which merely distracts us from what’s most important. QR codes have the potential to change this, but will they?


2 Responses to “Breaking the Code”

  1. 1 Rick Devereux October 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Thank God you keep me a little bit informed about the latest tech trends; otherwise, I’d join your husband as one of the last to know.


  2. 2 amygutman October 10, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for this, Jan–great explanation.

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