A couple of years ago, adverts around towns and cities started to include these pixelated little boxes, urging people to take photos of them. It was 2009: Oasis performed for the last time, swine flu sent the country into a paranoid spiral, and QR (quick response) codes were creeping into our day-to-day lives.
Initially, they had the novelty factor – I, for one, downloaded the reader straight away to see what the hype was about – but, for some reason, QR codes in this country have slipped into a black hole of irrelevancy. Personally, I haven’t had a QR code reader on my phone for at least 5 years. So, what happened to this technology and why has the rest of Europe embraced it when we refused to?
Does it really work?
This year seems to be the renaissance of the QR code. There’s been a reasonable amount of time between the QR code’s original demise and today, so Snapchat has repurposed them so that your profile icon is a scannable QR code that others can add you from. The reason this works is similar to the barcode integration in apps like MyFitnessPal - where you can scan the barcodes on your food packaging, in order to accurately track nutrition information - and in the same way that Snapchat itself is a QR reader as well as a photography app.
Also, because of the amount of time that has passed since the first surge of QR codes, the novelty factor has reemerged. Most recently, when Banksy painted his Les Misérables-based political message on the French Embassy in London, he also included an image of a QR code underneath it. Once scanned, it led users to an online video showing police raiding a refugee camp in Calais.
The adoption of QR codes by street artists is not new though – German street artist, Sweza, pastes images of boomboxes all around Europe with a QR code where the cassette would go. When users scan this particular code, they are taken to a playlist link, predesigned by the artist for that particular place. The use of this sort of technology, within what is often seen as spontaneous artwork, creates an intriguing juxtaposition that makes viewers curious, and therefore makes them more likely to download a reader to access the secret content. For example, on just one installation, Sweza’s linked video got 42,952 views.
Similarly, Sukiennice Museum in Poland, have utilised the codes to make their exhibitions more interactive and interesting. Should you scan a piece of artwork, you’ll be whisked off to a prerecorded video where you’ll be educated by the “painter” of work (obviously an actor, but fun nonetheless). It’s these sorts of creative uses that are making QR codes relevant across the continent. The mystery that comes from seeing a QR code in somewhere that you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be makes viewers (and potential consumers) more willing to go through the effort of downloading a reader, purely out of curiosity.
Why did it fail?
When creating a link to content, there’s one fundamental thing you need: access to the internet. Early adopters of QR codes in the UK tended to integrate them into their existing poster adverts (the type you see on the side of bus stops or in shopping centres). However, one of the main places you see these sorts of adverts are underground stations that, in most cases, have no WiFi or mobile data capabilities – overall, just a terrible place for QR codes to be (unless you're Kevin Bacon).
Another place that seemed to be a good for advertising these codes were cinemas. This way, avid movie-goers could unlock exclusive content such as behind-the-scenes footage or new trailers, all whilst in an environment that would make them more receptive to the content. But, what they failed to realise was that cinema-goers are encouraged to turn their phones off and already see dozens of trailers before their chosen feature anyway. Yet another instance of QR code good intentions going awry.
However, it’s not just placement on the part of the marketers or QR code creators that lead to the downfall of the technology. The integration of barcode scanners into existing apps, such as MyFitnessPal, means that the necessity for companies to invest time in creating QR codes is pretty low, if not non-existent. There’s no point creating a whole new scanning system, when there’s a perfectly-functioning and widely-recognised one already in place, or is there?
There must be some use for them, right?
They’re obviously not completely useless – if they were, other countries wouldn’t be so receptive to them. QR codes are frequently used on menus across the UK, linking the restaurant’s allergy or intolerance information. It’s an easy and cost-effective way for these businesses to convey this information to the consumer as it saves them money by not having to print off special menus that will only be used on occasion. Not to mention the time and money spent on training staff to remember all this information at the drop of a hat.
Possibly the most recognizable use for QR codes in this country is for events and travelling. By having individual codes that are as customisable as the human fingerprint, it’s a secure and eco-friendly way of distributing tickets. And, when you consider the removal of the inevitable human error that comes with checking these tickets, it’s a win-win.
However, the reason that this type of usage of QR codes seems to have worked well in this country - rather than the advertising form – is that it requires no downloading of a reader on the part of the user. It pretty much requires no effort and is actually more convenient for the user when they get around to using it, as the staff are ready and waiting with a handy scanner. So, this means no more long, winding queues, no more having to mess around with printed tickets, and no more waiting on the postman to deliver them the day before.
And, then comes the prime real-estate that comes with available phone space – when push comes to shove, are you going to delete a QR reader that you use occasionally to unlock content, or Instagram where you get to stare at cute dogs all day? In addition to this, we live in a fast-paced society that craves immediacy – the time it takes to install, load up, and use the QR code reader when you’re on the move is a use of time that many aren’t prepared to waste.
It seems that the main power of QR codes in this modern age is to use them sparingly and tactically. The problem with the initial wave of QR codes was that companies got excited by the new technology and drowned consumers with them – hence why the novelty wore off quickly. By using them creatively, it’ll pique more interest from potential consumers and possibly keep QR codes, as a format, relevant for longer.