Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

The subtitle of this post is: “What QR Codes Kill Kittens really communicates.” Because:

“The most essential gift for a good marketer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

Hemingway is the author of that quote, although he said “writer” instead of “marketer.”

But I think it applies equally well to marketing, because we have a responsibility to serve our customers first, and not our CEOs or bosses or clients. We need to call them on their shit, in other words.

But hold up: Those are the people who sign our paychecks. The buck stops literally with them. Who are we to argue?

Actually, we have every right. And a kind of duty.

Why: For a business to be successful, your customers have to love your products, certainly. And for marketing to do its job, you have to make your customers love your marketing, too.

Eww. Who loves being marketed to?

Well, my daughter Caroline did, when she was making Christmas cookies and Betty CrockerTV taught her how to separate an egg. My friend DJ Waldow did, when he was trying to hang a shelf in his new home and Lowe’s FixInSix showed him how to get it right. I could name many more organizations with marketing I love: Skype and Disney and Airbnb and political candidate Carl Sciortino.

All of those things were marketing, of course. But they were also useful, enjoyable, created with empathy for people at the heart of it. As my oft-quoted (by me) friend Tom Fishburne says, “The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing.”

Which brings me to QR codes. (Stay with me here.)

Things that are polarizing: Crocs, cilantro, QR codes.

I don’t know how most of us feel about Crocs and cilantro, but I do know how at least one of us feels about QR codes: Scott Stratten hates QR codes the same way toddlers object to candy with a fruit center.

Scott sees QR codes as emblematic of a bigger problem: We need to say no to bad marketing ideas. He’s collected a bunch of them in his new book, QR Codes Kill Kittens (Wiley), as a kind of public shaming.

Why? Bad marketing at best confuses and at worst alienates your customers. And in a world where social media platforms and content and data have gifted us an incredible opportunity to create marketing that’s useful, inspired and empathetic, there’s simply no good excuse for bad marketing.

As I said above:

This is on us, Marketing.

We need to find the means to tell our CEOs, our bosses, our clients that their silly ideas are little more than gimmicks. And we’re not going to do it anymore.

We need to own it. We need to march into their offices and stand there in a confident power pose (feet apart, arms on hips), and say in a steady, sure tone:

“Listen. This has to stop. The real opportunity in marketing isn’t in QR codes placed in no-cell reception subway tubes or along moving walkways, both of which are ridiculous. No…”

(And here you might shift slightly—perhaps walk toward the plate-glass window and gaze out with an I’ve seen the future and I can get us there unfocused but intense stare…)

“No…” you say again, for emphasis. “The real opportunity is in creating marketing our customers with thank us for!”

Does it feel wrong to plot against the person in charge?

Well, one of the realizations of being a grown-up is that it’s all right to challenge what you’ve been told all your life.

Those silly examples are two of the many, many, many, many, many, many bright and shiny business tools that we “keep breaking, before we have a chance to figure out how awesome they can be,” Scott writes in his book.

A few select others:

  • Companies that auto-synchronize their Facebook, Twitter, etc. accounts — effectively broadcasting the same message on very different social platforms
  • Any attempt to produce a “viral” video
  • Product placement at the bottom of urinals
  • Attempts to schedule marketing emails according to a calendar, as opposed when you have something of value to share

All of those things kill metaphorical kittens, Scott says, because they are misguided, misinformed, and not-well-thought-out marketing programs. They have a corporate—not a customer—perspective.

But they do drive action: They alienate customers, dishearten employees, and ultimately drive your business into the ground. (I didn’t write that. That’s actually the subtitle of Scott’s book.)

To be clear, QR codes (and many others shiny social and mobile tools) DO have potential. But, Scott says, “I say, take a mulligan on QR codes and start fresh. We need to ask ourselves if you market is ready for them. Are we ready for them? Is our website ready for them?”

And (and this is my add): Is your content in general also in ship shape? Are such shiny things part of a broader content-based strategy?

The slim, humorous book is packed with real-life photos and examples of marketing and customer service gone bad. Heavy on the visual, it’s a quick read (or flip-through), with snarky commentary and advice to how to fix this mess we’re in. Philosophically, it’s like a marketing-inspired mashup of Sh*t My Dad Says and TLC’s What Not to Wear.

I asked Scott a few quick questions about QR Codes Kill Kittens:

AH: First, let’s talk about the kitten on the book cover. What gives a sweet, impish creature an expression so pained with grief? A global shortage of yarn balls? An empty milk saucer? Was Ratatouille newly appointed to the Supreme Court on an anti-cat platform? QR Codes Cover Kitten

SS: I definitely think the QR codes had something to do with it.

AH: The cover cat is acting though, right? Were you at all privy to the actor’s motivations?

SS: No. But do a “sad kitten” search on istockphoto. Amazing. Best $43 I ever spent for that cover kitten. (Edit note: I just did.)

AH: Why kittens?

SS: “Every time you use a QR code in your marketing, a kitten dies” just came out on stage and everyone lost their mind.

AH: Why not unicorns or puppies or velociraptors?

SS: Nobody cares about killing unicorns. Since we all know they’re immortal, it’s a bit of a stretch to say QR codes kill them. (Duh.)

I needed to be realistic. I can’t say “kill puppies…” I’m not a psychopath.

AH: Why aren’t I featured in the book? Jay Baer is. So is Amber Naslund. WTF. I suppose this isn’t really a question. It’s just an expression of profound disappointment.

SS: The publisher said the stuff I wanted to put in about you was too violent and porny.

* * * * *

Scott’s last answer strikes me as a bit like blaming the victim: I’m to blame for his excluding me from his book? I see how it is. Whatever.

I kid, folks.

QR Codes Kill Kittens is a fun, quick read. Pick one up. It makes an excellent Thanksgivinganukkah or Christmas gift for the client or CEO whose name you unfortunately drew in the office swap—and still have, because no one will trade with you.

Post-script: I have one copy of QR Codes Kill Kittens to give away to the reader who shares the best example of bad marketing in the comments below. Chime in by December 1 for a chance to win (winner notified by email).

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29 Responses to Marketing Needs a Built-in, Shockproof, Sh*t Detector

  1. Violent and porny? Clearly Scott and I need to have a sit down. I was at your first book launch party with Anita, Scott. Don’t make me come over there.

    Kidding aside, I’ve never felt this frustration. I still write in my blog posts and say in meetings that while we may be friends in other circumstances, on business time I’m here to tell you the truth. I was like that before my entrepreneurial days too. It’s been my experience that top level execs are surrounded by yes men and want to hear whatever the truth is.

    I love this. If we could make this a trend – saying no to dumb-shit ideas – it would make a difference. It’s sad that some of our peers work in places where they’d just get fired for speaking their minds. Because leaping over that fear to say “no. that’s just idiotic” is just as likely to get you promoted in some places.

  2. Katybeth says:

    You grabbed my attention with Betty Crocker (separating eggs–who doesn’t want to know how to do that better?) and made the sale with the interview. If you had been included in the book, I would have bought one for a friend. 😀

    Happy Thanksgiving

  3. Nina says:

    This is awesome! And couldn’t be more accurate. I got handed a business card last week with a QR code on it…Really? I thought handing me your card was supposed to make it EASIER for me to get in touch with you. Needless to say…tossed that sucker.

  4. Erika Heald says:

    It has pained me every time I’ve been asked to put “create a viral video” into a plan or worse yet– into a production schedule. It’s always a slow, painful, unfortunate conversation wherein you have to explain IT DOESN’t WORK THAT WAY!!! *marketing nerd rage*


    It’s great when that shows up in a job listing or RFP request though — I keep on moving past it.

  5. What a fantastic article. I really enjoyed it!
    I have a quick little marketing mishap that I’d like to share. It isn’t so much poor marketing, so much as poor judgement. On the scale of disastrous marketing decisions, it probably rates at about a 41. Betcha you’re wondering what the scale goes up to eh?
    So it all started with Kijiji. A site I think everyone in Canada is at least familiar with, if not actively using. I regularly peruse the ads for the sheer entertainment value. Found an ad for a dead frozen owl once. True story!
    Anyhow, I came across another ad and actually took a screen shot on my phone because is thought it was a gem, and it really tickled my funny bone.
    The ad title read as follows “Walkin talking 2wat radio”. Um. Yeah. I SAYS PARDON??!!! Lol. The content of the ad is irrelevant really. Can we sound that out together??! So I guess it’s not so much bad marketing but these types of mishaps will bring the seller (or business) trust into question. If I can’t trust you to title an ad with care, how can I trust you with my business??!
    Well! That’s all the damage I can do here! If I were on a “Walkin talking 2wat radio”, I’d say…..
    This is Amy Sarginson, OVER AND OUT!

  6. This blog post rocked my Monday morning. I’m so using #MarketingNerdRage. Sidenote: I have now learned a new adjective…”porny.”

    My best example of bad marketing comes from my previous position and involves QR codes. (Imagine.) I worked for a company that sells digital displays to local and national retailers. One of our major contracts was Dairy Queen. We went to conventions with DQ owners and created content specifically for DQ displays. At one of our conventions, the account manager INSISTED we put QR codes on all the marketing materials: direct mailers, business cards, posters, banners, handouts…the works. This account manager insisted on this even though we actively knew that the majority of DQ owners are 50+ years old. Oh, and that over 75% of DQ owners did not own smartphones.

    Our marketing team’s best guess for what those DQ owners thought the QR codes were –> UPC codes for purchasing our materials.

    • Oh, and did I mention that our website was not mobile-friendly?! So even if one of those owners figured out that we were in fact NOT selling our materials but actually trying to deliver information via QR code, they would have gone to a pretty screwy website.


  7. Adam Breakey says:

    This was a great read.

    My favorite marketing mishap I am still experiencing. 🙂 The company I work for (will remain nameless, but it is directly related to marketing/selling to CPAs) created a product that will assist CPAs with a specific task they have to do each year. Well, they invested a ton of money into creating this really nice/sleek product. Then… they determined the revenue target based on the total investment in the product, rather than market size and opportunity. — And if that wasn’t bad enough, it was decided that this product should be given away free to a specific subset of the population, which just happens to be the #1 market for this product.

    Here is how the conversation went:
    Them: We have this great new product we are going to roll out in Jan 2012.
    Me: Great, I will pull together a marketing plan for the launch and the months that follow.
    Them: Perfect, we need this to generate $2.5 megamillionthousand within the first 12 months
    Me: Okay, let’s determine the market opportunity to determine what percentage of the audience we will need to close in order to hit that target.
    Them: Sounds good, BTW, we want to give this free as a member benefit to a certain group of our audience.
    Me: Hmm… Okay. Who is that audience?
    Them: (I’ll paraphrase this part) Every single F&’n person who would pay for it.
    Me: I think we have a problem.

    So, needless to say, I was able to generate a lot of usage of the product, but little revenue – because the product owners gave it away FREE.


  8. If the Boston Globe put QR codes in the newspaper it’d make it so much easier to share stories.

    Blog post: QR Code Example for Boston Globe Articles

  9. Tom Martin says:

    Possibly the best book review of all time… in class Anne Handley style… great stuff dear.

    I just wish Scott had kept in the Porny stuff… maybe you with a QR code tat somewhere special. Oh well… he can keep it for the sequel.

  10. Digital doesn’t have the monopoly of truly dreadful ideas….

    Actually, as someone who spends his time delivering digital projects, I’m more often dealing with the opposite problem – people who just say “give us what our competitor already has” – in fairness bigger clients do often have more ambition, but the smaller guys aren’t interested enough in ideas to do entertain bad ones 😉

    But the flat out worst idea I’ve come across – which fortunately we did NOT do – was about 6 years ago….

    The product: a range of interactive entertainment (games-style) products, aimed at a family audience. One of our key challenges was to communicate that the products were inclusive, accessible, safe – something the whole family could share, mothers, daughters, etc.; they weren’t about macho-sports or violence, and we did not do sexualised depictions of women. Now, this seems obvious – from Cooking Mama through to Farmville, the last few years have proved that there’s a space for safe, accessible, inclusive games and software toys – but at the time it was something we had to work hard to get across.

    So, the genius idea? “We hire a model and get her to go to this sporting event. We need to get her in line of site of the TV cameras. And then she takes her top off and has the latest product’s logo on her breasts, and she jumps up and down to attract attention….” Seriously.

  11. Pingback: How Australia Post Got QR Codes Right | Ben Shute

  12. Doug Haslam says:

    Every time someone says “everytime ‘x’ a kitten dies” – a kitten dies. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it, and I just created a feedback loop of kitty carnage.

    It’s all your fault.

    My first piece of advice is to kill gimmicks (not kittens), don’t follow memes and fads (like “kittens”) just because they are popular, and of you must use some flash, make sure you have something left to offer when that is gone (sooner than you think).

    Second (but really first) – is I find, more often than not, clients hire consultants to be told what to do. Too few take that responsibility- that task- to heart. And you can do that without kittens; apparently, they will be extinct soon.

  13. Mike Klein says:

    The best example of bad marketing I’ve seen was a local company put a QR code on their home page. The logic of the use case (or lack of one) is absurd.

    I mean, so I’m visiting your website on my computer and then I’m supposed to pull out my phone to scan the QR code to then take me to a non-mobile version of your website? I won’t out the company, but clearly somebody didn’t think things through 🙂


  14. Ben Shute says:

    One of my kids was given a toy for last Christmas, and on the back of the box was a picture of said toy telling people to, and I quote, “find our viral marketing on the web”….

    Great post Ann


  15. Duane says:

    I always thought QR codes on billboards were strange. Let’s open a QR code reader driving 70mph and scan to see a micro site you shouldn’t be reading anyway.

    Otherwise, bad marketing happens anytime a website doesn’t accurately list linkS to active social media pages. You only get one chance for people to click to join the conversation. Miss your chance, and you might miss engaging with a paying customer.

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  17. Ann Handley says:

    The kittens chose it: Adam Breakey won a copy of Scott’s new book. Thanks for chiming in here, all!

  18. I know the mini-comp is over, but I do love this little #fail moment, found while browsing Twitter on my mobile:

    “Scan this QR code with your mobile device to visit our official website on the go!”

    There are so many things wrong with this, I don’t know where to start.

    That aside, I love Scott’s book – great to see an interview, if all too brief! His book inspired my own blog post on all the things I loathe about QR codes.

    Here in Australia, we were late to the QR game, which has had a twofold effect: (1) there’s a tragic use of QR everywhere you turn and (2) thankfully its life will be short-lived as other options come on stream.

    I suspect (2) is borderline wishful thinking, but you have to put these things out there…

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