If you happen to notice a black and white square in the corner of an ad, you might want to get out your phone. These pixilated squares are called 'quick response,' or QR codes for short. They are barcodes that can be scanned with smart phones.
Former WBEZ Pritzker Journalism Fellow Icoi Johnson set out to learn why some might want to do such a thing.
So I’m standing outside of 739 S. Clark Street and looking up at a very giant QR Code that is posted on the side of a building. It has a message that says ‘scan me.’ Now once we scan this message, we’re supposed to find maybe a coupon or some kind of advertising deal.
ambi: Samuel starts talking
That's Samuel Vega, my co-worker. He loaned me his iPhone to show me how it works.
VEGA: Just simply point it at the barcode and it will just get it automatically.
And there it is. So it says do you want to open this webpage and we’re going to say yes. And let's see where it’s taking us. Blackies! It’s a coupon for Blackies. Which is pretty cool because Blackies is actually right at the next corner.
Quick response codes aren’t new. They were invented by a Japanese company called Denso Wave in 1994. Since then they have become quite popular in Japan, where you can even find them on some gravestones.
But they are just starting to catch on here. In Chicago, they have been spotted on the Magnificent Mile, CTA L stations, and in TV ads. The codes grant access to websites, videos, and coupons. A QR code can gather data about consumer shopping habits.
Ted Novak is a partner with scanfordeals.com, a Chicago start-up that is responsible for that large QR code on Clark Street.
Novak explains to me how codes benefit marketers.
NOVAK: For the first time ever they’re able to track physical advertising to the same degree in terms of phone stats, demographic information, geographic information, how many hits, traffic, all these things that traditionally were only possible with analytic tools on the internet.
That’s a lot of personal information streaming on a phone, especially since QR codes can be made using free software.
And if the codes can be made by anyone, can they be tampered with too?
NOVAK: I would say a QR code is about as secure as going to any website out there and having the ability to change it. As you know unless it’s a website that you know all the passwords for, typically that’s not possible.
The codes aren’t just for companies looking to advertise. They can be used in many different ways.
The codes can be linked to Facebook, personal blogs, or just about anything with a web address.
Publicist Paul Samuelson used the codes to solve a printing delay when he worked for publisher Sourcebooks in Naperville.
That’s when Samuelson got an idea.
SAMUELSON: So what I suggested was just printing a blank cover and putting a QR code on it and then putting a few of the different cover options on a site, and then setting it up so people could vote on which cover they liked best.
Samuelson sent those advance copies to some readers. They voted and decided the new cover before the book was even published.
But as the codes become more popular with marketers, will they gain favor with consumers as well?
CHINTAGUNTA: Chances are if this is associated with some kind of promotional offer, like a discount, then it’s more likely that customers will feel inclined to scan it.
Pradeep Chintagunta is a professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
CHINTAGUNTA: If they eventually find out that all the get to see is some videos, some pictures, then I think it could be a problem.
He says interest in the codes would be high in the beginning, but cautions that the codes could risk ending up like other unpopular advertising methods.
CHINTAGUNTA: The exact same thing happened with banner ads for example. In the beginning when people saw banner ads on the internet, they were very curious. They would click on them. Now of course you see a banner ad and you want to get as far away from it as you can.
The future of quick response codes in U.S. cities like Chicago is uncertain, but don’t be surprised if they start popping up more frequently.
In other places, they are already being used in scavenger hunts, on belt buckles, and even as tattoos.