I was sitting on a bus recently and noticed some advertising on the back of the seat in front of me that made me laugh. Not a bellowing, jolly laugh of appreciation thanks to the comedic poignancy of the creative; more of a mild chuckle brought on by the ridiculousness of the execution.

The ad was for incontinence pads and was clearly targeted at an older, bus-riding audience. This fact is by no means funny – incontinence is a serious issue faced by a proportion of the bus-riding audience, so the company’s targeting was sound. What made me chortle ever-so smugly to myself was the fact that the advertising strip on the back of the seat was accompanied by a QR code offering more information on the condition. Now let’s assume that the older, bus-riding audience being targeted all have smart phones, and let’s suspend reality further and pretend that they also all have the QR code app installed on their trusty smart phones; even under these (unlikely) circumstances, this is still one of the most absurd and misguided uses of technology I have ever had the privilege to witness. The fundamental flaw with this use of QR codes was its blatant disregard for human nature; if you suffer from incontinence and find yourself in the delicate situation to be seeking out a viable solution, then I’m expecting it’s not exactly the sort of information you’d be desperate to share with complete strangers. I’m certainly not saying it’s something to be ashamed or embarrassed about, but it’s a highly personal issue that should be addressed in a respectful and dignified manner. Which leads me to my ultimate question…


Did this company honestly think that incontinence suffers would volunteer this information in return for the cumbersome privilege of scanning a QR code? Or did they hope that bus passengers would be so bored and in need of extra content that they would scan this QR code for fun?

The sad fact is, this wasn’t even the most unashamedly misguided use of QR codes I have come across. I recently watched a video on Facebook on my mobile phone that included a QR code in the video. IN THE VIDEO! I’m not making this up – take a look for yourselves…


Again, let’s assume that I and all of the other members of the target audience had the QR code app installed on our mobile phones, how on earth were we expected to scan this QR code whilst watching the video ON THAT SAME MOBILE PHONE? And what made this particular use of QR code so overwhelmingly and mind-numbingly stupid was that this was a Facebook video – a.k.a. A DIGITAL PLATFORM! Wouldn’t a clickable link in the text above the video have been a far more effective way to drive traffic towards the added content on offer?

Whilst I did once see a QR code printed on a Large Format Billboard on a busy highway (possibly the ultimate example of its misuse by an “up-and-coming, forward-thinking, go-getter marketing exec”), I do understand the rationale behind putting QR codes on (appropriate) non-digital media. Once upon a time they felt like a unique and engaging method by which to digitise the offering and drive the consumer research process as well as the path to purchase. Whilst there are now more tools in market that can facilitate this consumer journey in an analogue environment (i.e. Shazam), the use of QR codes in the digital space is just plain gimmickry and serves no beneficial function. They don’t streamline the user experience, they merely pose greater hurdles.  So we can probably all agree that QR codes are a lot like the Pussycat Dolls – sort of cool in 2006, but no one has any real use for them anymore.

But around this same time in human history, a new digital trend emerged. A social utility that would enhance the searchability of online content whilst perfectly curating relevant and aligned subject matter into central information hubs based on common topics. Or so they thought.

Enter, the “hashtag”.

The # symbol has been employed in the information technology space since around the 1970’s, but found its ultimate home in July 2009 when Twitter began to hyperlink all hashtags in tweets. Hashtags became useful metadata tags that made it easier for users of certain social networks or microblogging services to find messages with specific themes or content. It was new, it was exciting, it was an easy way for brands to engage with consumers via a personalised and centralised platform. Or so they thought.

It appears that no online phenomena has been as over-used yet poorly-utilised by brands than the hashtag. What was once a focussed channel through which companies could share content and invite their consumers to join in the conversation – enabling their audience to share their own creativity and build relationships with the brand – has now become a farcical fad on the verge of redundancy, much like its cousin, the QR code. There are a myriad of examples of brands trying to engage with audiences via ill-advised hashtags, but one instance I witnessed over the summer perfectly encapsulated how brands are losing touch with how best to exploit a hashtag’s inherent function for marketing purposes.

I was on holiday in Hong Kong, the capitalist centre of the communist world; naturally, I was out shopping in one of the many commercial megaplexs on offer. I walked past a particular fashion label and noticed that they had massive posters scattered around their store with a single word printed on each poster. Plastered all across the shop was the clunky phrase – #ImPerfect.


Besides the obvious irony inherent in how imperfect this particular hashtag was, what was more concerning to me was how utterly useless it was as a hashtag. What this fashion brand had essentially done was converted a branding message that they wanted to project to the market into a hashtag. Despite the fact that this particular marketing tag line had very little correlation or identifiable relevance to the brand itself, it had even less utility as a hashtag. The words “I’m Perfect” have no deep-seated association with this brand and have no resonance with consumers looking to engage with the brand online. What’s more, there are a plethora of social media posts that could use this hashtag for purposes entirely unrelated to this brand. If Nike were to use the hashtag – #justdoit – it would be meaningful to its audience as there is long-standing meaning inherent in this brand message; if anyone were to use the hashtag – #kanyewestisadouchebag – it would yield equal value to most humans. But simply using a sentiment with which you hope to build a brand association is ineffective and will inevitably be lost in the vast Twittersphere of branding ineptitude.

If you’re going to use hashtags to communicate your brand’s values and drive consumers to opt-into your conversation, they must possess relevant and useful links to your brand’s identity. Hashtags that are unique to the brand will stand out and successfully serve the function for which they were designed – to gather and collate content specific to a certain theme or topic, in this instance, your brand message. But promoting a useless hashtag simply for the sake of promoting a hashtag is a lot like asking people to scan an outdated QR code on an ad for incontinence pads – it’s just embarrassing for all involved.




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