On being ... Rorschach's legacy?

By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t know about where you live, but here in Toronto these bizarre, crossword puzzle-like graphics have started turning up everywhere. To be honest, I can’t even tell you how long they’ve been around because for the longest time I simply ignored them.

The first time it occurred to me that these weren’t some strange, Escher-like graffiti that someone was randomly posting around town was when I noticed one on a printed sign in the subway where ads normally appear. I couldn’t understand why such a thing was on a printed poster because that would mean that someone had actually paid for such a graphic -- and that it was somehow part of the ad.

I made my way closer to the poster to see if there was more to the box -- you know -- some hidden message like those tests they give to see if you’re colour blind. But, there was nothing that I could see -- just a bunch of black squares and white spaces. It wasn’t until I was quite close that I noticed instructions that said something about using your cell phone. At that point I made a conscious decision to tune it out. If it was something involving a cell phone, I pretty much wasn’t interested, as I still view my phone as something just for making calls.

After that, I started noticing them here and there, usually with a note about needing a cell phone to view it. Eventually I heard someone describe it as a kind of a “bar code” that you read with your cell phone. “Aha!” I thought… just a new-fangled bar code. That explanation at least meant something to me, since everyone who has ever shopped knows what a bar code is. But still, I couldn’t understand why there would be bar codes on ads – and I sure as heck couldn’t understand why anyone would want to “read one” with their cell phone. (It also made me wonder whether anyone scans the old style bar codes (the vertical line ones) with a cell phone -- and if so, why?)

Then, last week I was at a concert with some friends and I saw a large banner that had a company’s logo and tag line and then a huge one of those black and white puzzle-designs. I asked a friend if he knew what that was and he said, “Ah, yeah -- it’s something you read with your smart phone -- it’s like a bar code.” Now I was getting somewhere, I thought. Since I knew he had a BlackBerry® (Canada’s famous smart phone), I bombarded him with questions.

How does it work? What kind of information does it magically provide? How come some of those “bar codes” are super big (like the one on that banner) and some fit on a business card? Alas, he had no answers, as he had never done anything with one of them. Though my curiosity was peaked, there was little I could do, since I have an “ordinary” cell phone -- not a smart phone.

Finally, just the other day, a newspaper article talked about the positive response a winery has had by putting them on their wine bottle labels. Apparently they’re called QR codes, which stands for “quick response”. The article explained that they are basically encoded text or links to a web page and scanning software in smart phones decodes the message and displays it on the phone’s screen, or automatically connects you to a web page.

The article then went on to explain the kind of information the winery has included -- stuff about the blend of grapes used and food pairings -- additional information that would appeal to some customers, but not everyone. I must admit, on reading that, bells went off in my head -- not so much as a consumer, but as a business writer. (A new market for my services?)

I then Googled QR codes and found all sorts of information and videos about them, including their possible uses and how easy they are to create. The videos made it pretty clear that marketing is the name of the game. Indeed, one person described the use of QR codes as “rewarding consumers for paying attention to your brand” -- I guess because when you scan one you’re directed to more information about that product. Hmmm… more marketing information… Some reward, huh?

Well, now that I know that for the most part QR codes are about selling you something, at least I don’t feel I’m failing some 21st century Rorschach test or that perhaps I’m missing out on important messages about the meaning of life…

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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