Cracking the (QR) code

The pandemic saw QR codes in widespread use as smartphone-linked technology like ‘track and trace’ helped in the fight against COVID-19. Although QR codes have been with us for many years, their use had never been so widespread in daily life. It’s only natural that we’re seeing advertisers following-up on this trend.

Legitimate direct response mechanisms

Using codes in ads means campaigns can instantly take consumers from an originating ad in virtually any media to further information about products and promotional offers. This seems like a win-win in terms of the ease with which response mechanisms can be placed in various non-digital ad formats and the convenience for consumers, if they choose to enquire further by responding to an ad that’s caught their eye.

Although they’re a perfectly legitimate direct response mechanism, QR codes do present potential compliance issues that marketers need to be aware of. They could be used in ways likely to mislead consumers or to promote unacceptable products or those inappropriate for younger audiences.

Avoid misleading uses

Use of QR codes in ads must conform to the UK Advertising Codes’ misleading advertising rules. Marketers must avoid scenarios where a consumer could be misled into enquiring further by scanning a QR code, if the ad does not appropriately set consumer expectations over what they are accessing. This may be through the omission of material information or giving a misleading impression about the content a QR code links to. For example, ads should not suggest a product variant is available when it is not and make clear the extent of financial commitments such as non-optional charges.

Don’t link to sensitive product categories

Another risk is that QR codes might breach CAP or BCAP’s sensitive product category rules. There are dedicated rules for alcohol, gambling, lotteries, e-cigarettes and food and soft drink products high in fat, salt, or sugar, that prohibit ads from being placed in media for children and young people or other media where they are disproportionately present in the audience. The ASA will consider the wider context in which an ad appears, including where any links within an ad lead to. A brand ad without specific product references that links via QR code to a sensitive category product will be banned, if it’s placed in media covered by these rules.

Be careful with adult-oriented content

As with sensitive product categories, QR codes should not be used to take younger viewers to content that is scary, sexualised or otherwise inappropriate. A good example is an ad including a short teaser of a movie trailer, which links through to a fuller version including such content. 

Marketers can ensure their use of QR codes complies with the Codes by checking with CAP’s Copy Advice team.

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