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June 18, 2009

Down The Mobile Anti-Marketing Hole

It started innocently enough. It was a cool June day on the streets of New York where outside of Penn Station some street marketers were passing out samples of Speed Stick antiperspirant. When I got to my hotel room and unpacked the cellophane bag I noticed that the promo included a 2D code I was prompted to snap and send to a short code.

Ok, fair enough. The theme of the campaign is “Different Strokes for Different Folks,” to promote three kinds of Speed Stick for a range of sweating types (“what’s your pit type?”). And to the marketers’ credit the concept of the 2D code is aligned with the brand message. The offer suggests that by using the 2D code I will be able to “make a 2D code that belongs to you and you alone.”

Eliding the obvious question of sentient beings (Why the hell do I want my own 2D code?) I decide to play the brainless toady brand marketers often imagine me to be and initiate the process. And while I am playing the doofus, how about if I also pretend that I am not versed in mobile media and marketing, and that a 2D code still looks to me like some silly screw-up of a digital image download.

But, of course, without standardized 2D code readers embedded on phones, using this system in the U.S. is a bothersome kludge. You have to text “SPEED” to 87415 in order for the WAP push to initiate the process. I do so and get the link, which opens my iPhone browser to land on a Speed Stick page. I have a choice between getting a 2D card reader or getting my own 2D code. Choice #1 kicks me to the App Store to download a “BeeTagg” multi-code reader – which, according to App Store users, merits two out of five stars. Speed Stick really hasn’t told me much of anything about why I want this poorly reviewed reader or what possible purpose it might have on my deck. In fact at this point I am a few minutes into a process that has yet to inform me sufficiently why I really am here.

Let’s pursue the other path down the brand rabbit hole. Back at the Speed Stick mobile landing page I try the other option to get my own 2D code (whatever the hell that is). Now I get asked for my mobile phone number and my email “to register.” What Speed Stick will be doing with both email and phone number, I don’t know yet. I get an email with a link and a password to enter. You’re kidding me. I have to copy or write down a password now and I still don’t know what I am doing if for? More to the point, this process has now kicked me around three media and multiple platforms: a print card, SMS, app download, WAP push, mobile Web site, email and finally a Web landing page.

Is anyone keeping count here, because I lost track a while ago of how many things I had to click and places I had to input information to get to a payoff that is still ill-defined.

So I get to the speed Stick Web page. Newcomers without login information get a “What’s Your 2D Code” prompt to find out what this is all about. The result is form to fill and a right-hand text description that easily can be mistaken for a useless Terms of Service agreement. For those of us who already went through all the above steps, we get to fill in our name and then get a pop-up with the same three graphs of unadorned explanation for what a 2D bar code is and can do. Finally, after all of that I get the privilege of reading a short story. I know, I sound cranky, but this has been a long brand adventure and I am getting hungry now. And then more forms; selecting a social network to send the code to. After this you can track how your code is being used.

You can tell there is the core of a good campaign in here somewhere. Ultimately the idea is that people are passing their 2D code around and being ranked on-site for how many times they get hit. I am sure the program is still too young for us to assess numbers, but so far the top ten add up to about 60 scans total. I applaud those who were hearty enough to follow through on the whole process and get their own code. I couldn’t follow you. I gave up. I had to eat.

Is this campaign just too clever by halves? I am sure that in outline and in pitch sessions it hit all the right buzzwords. The campaign aligns the technology with the brand message. It leverages numerous touchpoints (WAP, SMS, email, Web). It taps into social networks and uses viral distribution. It appeals to its male target’s native competitiveness and quest for popularity. If it works and catches on, the campaign harvests a crapload of data.

The problem is, it’s a pain to execute. This campaign not only turns me off to the brand, it turns me off to 2D codes as well.

I have never been a fan of slapping these things anywhere. I much prefer image recognition technology for this. UPC codes and the like were made for machines, not people. And most UPC codes are confined to packaging, where they can be tucked away out of sight or restricted to a single page of a magazine.

2D codes threaten to go everywhere. And there is nothing aesthetically pleasing or directly communicative about them. They are just a big fat eyesore that engineers and geeks might find energizing. The rest of us just want to peel them off of our otherwise pleasant-looking world. The prospect of a world filled with these things is too unappealing to ponder.

As someone who wrote years ago about the mind-blowing prospects of connecting the physical world to the digital world via the cell phone, I am a big fan of the basic goal here. But well-meaning campaigns like this remind me how far we have to go before the process is smooth enough, and the technology is ready for consumers to consume. We need time to eat.

Contributing writer Steve Smith is a lapsed academic who saw the light, bolted the University and spent the last decade as a digital media critic and consultant. He is chair and programmer of OMMA Mobile and OMMA Behavioral conferences from Mediapost and is the Digital Media Editor at Media Industry Newsletter (MIN) from Access Intelligence. Contact him at