When Tempted by the Latest Marketing Tech, Remember the CueCat

The Cat That Couldn't Win on the Web

By Published on .

This cat didn't have nine lives.
This cat didn't have nine lives. Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

Have you heard about the latest breakthrough in marketing technology? It was announced just this morning, and it will change the way we do business, the way we consume media, the way we think and even the way we produce human children.

Or perhaps it will go the way of the flying car.

What is this piece of marketing technology? I don't know. It doesn't matter. But I'm pretty confident that on any given day of the week, there will be a breathless press release announcing some gadget or software or service that will revolutionize advertising.

Every industry has this sort of stuff. Once upon a time, these things would get a little coverage in the trade press, then go on to either work or fail. These days, however, even mundane (or borderline insane) marketing tech can escape out into social media and then to 24-hour cable news, where it will be seen by a confused CEO who hops on the phone to his CMO and demands action.

But how to tell the difference between a shiny but ridiculous bauble doomed from the start and one that will become so ubiquitous as to become a boring part of everyday life?

Ask the right questions. Does it (a) deliver a tangible product or service for a clearly defined end-user in a simple manner or (b) seem like something Rube Goldberg would build out of steampunk parts in hopes of finding investors?

If the answer is (a), proceed with cautious optimism. If (b), remember the CueCat.

CueCat, for those who were 15 when it was unveiled in 2000, was going to save print—or integrate digital and print—or make everything interactive. Or something.

The CueCat was a bar-code scanner shaped like a cat. (Let that one sink in). The cat plugged into a consumer's computer with an actual wire—no Bluetooth, no Wi-Fi. The consumer then scanned print ads with it. So your typical Dawn of the Century Man was meant to sit there with a magazine or newspaper, then see an ad and be so moved by that ad that he'd reach for this bar-code scanner attached to his computer, scan the ad and then be whisked away to … a website. That is all CueCat did: take the consumer from an ad to, basically, another ad. (And this was after the consumer installed the software on his or her computer and registered with his or her ZIP code, gender and email address.)

Belo Corp., RadioShack, Y&R and Coca-Cola were among the companies that invested a total of $185 million into this.

Was the CueCat ahead of its time? Would it have worked if the consumer had access to Wi-Fi and a miraculous computer that lived in his pocket?

Oh, definitely. Just like QR codes! Remember how QR codes shifted the marketing paradigm? Of course you don't. Because they didn't. QR codes don't require plugging a bar-code scanner into a 50-pound computer, but they still require the consumer to (a) find a QR code-reading app (b) install that app (c) scan a code on an ad (d) hope he has service (e) pray it all works.

Or, you could just text a code. I know which one I'd do every time.

Why? Because, as a consumer, texting is simple and using QR codes is a pain (especially if all I'm getting is "more information" at worst or a coupon at best).

So why the fascination with things like QR codes? Partly because a lot of middlemen can roam the QR-code ecosystem, separating suckers from their money. (It's just that the suckers in this case are ad agencies and marketers, not consumers.) And partly because they're different and seem to put all sorts of new technology to use, scratching our itch for things like flying cars and jet packs.

On the flip side, when something's so easy even a caveman could do it (sorry, cavemen—and Geico), some of us have a tendency to write it off.

When Amazon announced the Dash button, which is basically the Staples Easy Button but for toilet paper and laundry detergent, a lot of people wrote it off as a joke—and not only because Amazon announced it on April Fool's Day. One Forrester analyst scoffed at the concept. "Do we really need this device? I can see this being much better for, say, ordering pizza, but for ordering diapers or toilet paper [it] seems a little odd. Who waits until the last roll of toilet paper before replenishing anyway?"

Only half the male population, that's who.

Even the much-maligned (if only by me) QR-code tech has a chance of morphing into something useful.

A lot of the groundwork that went into it is being used in systems like PowaTag, which allow consumers to point their phones at ads and other such things and then—here's a crucial difference—buy a product. See? Simple. Point, shoot and buy. As opposed to point, shoot, go to website because an ad-sales manager somewhere is desperate to justify his prices.

Will Dash and PowaTag succeed? It's too soon to tell—which isn't a sexy story: "Thing Invented May Influence Way We Shop; Check Back in Five Years."

But they've got to stand a better chance than the hot new marketing tech that lets you point your phone at a TV commercial and then get launched into a live chat with a customer-service representative.

Unless there are millions of consumers out there who, when confronted by an ad during their favorite show or while reading a magazine, immediately think, "You know what, I'd love to just stop everything, download an app, scan this ad and then live chat with someone about this product."

Yeah, me neither.

Ken Wheaton, the managing editor of Advertising Age, writes our Last Word column. His latest novel, "Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears," was published in 2014.