Is a QR Code Worth $13 Million?

Lessons direct marketers and printers can learn from Super Bowl LVI



Greg Cholmondeley



The most talked-about Super Bowl ad was 60 seconds of a color-changing QR code floating on a black screen interspersed between all the usual glossy productions. It was a sort of homage to a skit from The Office with a bouncing DVD logo. But this version consisted of one of those old, noise-filled squares that Chris Sacca described as “the herpes of mobile technology” on #SharkTank back in 2017. And #Coinbase, one of the world’s most tech-savvy bitcoin companies, spent $13 million for those 60 seconds of airtime.




But what was even more incredible was that every single person, from my ten-year-old daughter to the older man at the back of the Super Bowl party I attended, whipped out their cell phone and scanned it.


So, why is this noteworthy? QR codes provide a bridge between unidirectional media (e.g., television, print) and interactive media (websites). However, they’ve struggled for acceptance for decades and were given up on by much of the marketplace. That obviously isn’t the case anymore. Now QR codes are found on cereal boxes, letters, buses, billboards, menus, store signage, and even on TV. My local news channel regularly shows them to connect to various websites. NBC’s Olympic coverage flashes one up to link viewers to their website. I even use them in the novels I write so that my readers can listen to an audio version of each chapter as they read.



So, what happened? First, let’s take a quick look at what went wrong with the technology.


The QR Code Challenge

QR codes came out back in 1994 but have languished for over a decade. Some of the primary reasons included:

  • Phones required special apps to read them
  • People didn’t know what they were
  • Designers thought they were ugly
  • They often linked to websites that were not mobile-friendly


Most of those challenges are now gone.

  • Every smartphone can read QR codes with its camera. Just turn on your phone’s camera, point it at the QR code, and click on the link that pops up.
  • Everyone knows about QR codes We can thank the pandemic for this. QR codes appeared everywhere on pandemic-related signage. People used them to order meals, go to health sites, and a million other uses.
  • They’re still ugly. Sorry, but it’s true. However ugly, though, QR codes are prominent and recognizable. Designers tried clever ways to perform similar functions with image recognition and subtle logos. The problem was that these techniques often required dedicated apps and were so subtle that few people knew they were supposed to be scanned.
  • Developers have learned to make websites mobile-friendly, especially ones designed to be primarily accessed by smartphones.


Why This Matters

Direct marketing is all about getting people’s attention and driving action. e-Mail and text messaging are marketing darlings because they can cause users to take action with the click of a button. That action can be trackable, immersive, and even personalized. Print and broadcast channels are disadvantaged because they can’t track customer behavior beyond having someone type in a URL, dial a phone number, or bring a coupon the next time they visit a store.


QR codes level the playing field because people can easily pull their smartphones out of their pockets, point their camera app, and visit a trackable and personalized mobile website. And now that Super Bowl LVI proved that they work, we can expect to see more of them.


So, was Coinbase’s QR Code ad worth $13 million? I don’t have that answer. But, unlike the companies with all those fancy truck and EV ads, somebody at Coinbase knows. I read that their website had more than 20 million hits in one minute, which temporarily choked the site. Coinbase was trending on Twitter with several thousand tweets, and the Internet continues to be flooded with comments and parodies. So, Coinbase’s marketers were not sitting back wondering whether anyone watched their ad. Instead, they were scrambling to handle the instant response.


Will their $15 in free Bitcoin promotion and $3 million giveaway be successful? Who can say? Although their shares did slightly dip due to their cryptocurrency exchange app crash. Overall, though, being overwhelmed with customer responses is not the worst problem in the world. Oh, and here’s the Coinbase sweepstakes link for those of you who couldn’t get through.



What We Learned

This said, I hope I don’t see a stack of blank postcards in my mailbox containing nothing more than a QR code. Please don’t do that. It was a gimmick that worked once, not a template for success.


However, we learned that people click on a QR codes out of curiosity and not just for additional information. Historically, postcards with QR codes contained all the information needed, and the QR code was used to sign up or enter a sweepstake. Coinbase’s ad demonstrated that, perhaps, a better way to use QR codes in marketing is to tease people and get them to click for the information. Imagine a postcard with a sexy but unrecognizable EV car speeding by with a phrase like “Will it take you far enough?” and a QR code. Scanning it takes you to a video site where you learn more about the manufacturer, model, special offer, etc. I think that clever marketers, designers, and printers can use what we’ve learned to create a new generation of powerful print marketing concepts.


And if you happened to miss this, or any other commercial, on Sunday—check out every ad in under 2 minutes for a quick recap.


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