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Updated: May 11, 2019

Credit from David Sime

The Digital Divide

As a conventional marketer turned digital I am acutely aware of what is referred to as the digital divide between traditional advertising and digital marketing products.

This divide is perhaps strongest in “out of home advertising” – by which I mean posters, billboards and, well, anything outdoors. The clue’s in the name really.

So what do I mean by the digital divide then? Well, imagine you’ve just got off your train, you’re heading out through the station and an advert catches your eye – it’s for a dress or a suit from one of those new clothing brands you’re vaguely aware of and were thinking of checking out.

The model looks really good in the clothes (don’t they always) and you briefly reconcile yourself to checking them out next time you’re in front of a computer so you can buy those clothes and look like that model.

But first you have to get to work – and on the way to work stop at the coffee shop, then another store to pick up some lunch, then you arrive at work to the usual barrage of tasks, good mornings, emails, phone-calls that start most of our working days.

Still thinking about that advert? Nope. Chances are that even if you do get a chance to look at some clothes online it won’t be until that evening, by which time you’ll probably have forgotten what the brand was, much less the actual item of clothing.

That, my friend, is the digital divide. The gap between learning you can buy something online and actually being able to take action on it.

The solution from the out of home advertising industry (quaintly abbreviated to “OOH”) to shrink this digital divide was to start using digital triggers that would direct your phone to connect with the very thing being advertised.

These included Bluetooth beacons (which need a power source, regular maintenance and, of course, for the user’s phone to have Bluetooth switched on) Near-Field technology (much the same, and you have to actually “tap” the advert with your phone) and, in particular, QR codes.

A Bar-Code For A New Generation

You know, QR codes, those little squiggly black and white boxes you see on everything from petrol pumps to packs of chewing gum… They’re actually quite a clever idea, where without any chips, power sources or banging of phones off things you can scan the code  with your phone’s camera and be taken directly to the website or app of relevance.

So why then, after many years of use, has uptake of QR codes in Europe (and the UK particularly) been so limited? It could be argued that their failure has now made them a laughing stock, to the extent that that they are looked upon in the marketing world with almost the same embarrassment as an old photograph of your dad wearing flares.

Is it because they are inherently a terrible idea? You’d be tempted to think so, but the reality is that while we in the west are quietly scoffing at the memory of them, the largest population centre in the world China is QR code obsessed, using them in everything from instant payment signs for buskers to gravestone markings.

So why the huge difference? As a lecturer in Digital Marketing for Google and the Chartered Institute of Marketing, it’s my business to know these things, so around 20 months ago I set out to research the reasons behind this discrepancy, in order to work out  whether QR codes or something similar couldn’t be given a new lease of life here in the west.

What I wasn’t expecting was the voyage of discovery that was to await me, speaking to people from many countries and disciplines, and traversing barriers, solutions and opportunities across technology, sociology, psychology and commerce.

Origin Story

Originally developed by Masahiro Hara as a means of improving upon the traditional bar-code, the QR (Quick Response) code could be read four times faster than any other equivalent and could contain up to 7000 characters (including Japanese Kanji and Kana scrips) compared to the bar-code’s relatively paltry twenty.

The other advantage of the QR code was that it could be read in any direction (not just left to right like the bar-code) and worked even when dirty or partially obscured, making it much better for industrial processes, packing plants and, of course, many forms of advertising.

Interestingly, from the outset Masahiro Hara and his employers at the Denso Corporation sought only to make this code the most widely adopted in the world, so they publicly announced that, despite holding the patent to the QR code, they would never enforce it, making the working of the system public and effectively creating a free public code for anyone’s use.

Timing and Technology

Now we have to realise that this technology was released way back in 1994, and even in Japan it wasn’t to become widespread with the public for another eight years.

Actually it was what facilitated that sudden growth in uptake that was to be the first major difference between east and west.

In Japan in 2002 mobile phones started being released with inbuilt QR code readers, meaning that anyone and everyone could read them, and with the free use of the codes technology advertisers were extremely quick to make the most of the opportunities this created.

By comparison, QR code readers were never pre-installed on Western phones, which at that time didn’t have the capability to download apps as we do today, so they were a luxury simply not available to the west.

Also, mobile internet was dramatically further advanced in Japan than Europe, with 3G being released and quickly adopted by 2001, unlike the UK where is want released for another 2 years, much less readily taken up – in fact even the first iPhone in 2007 was 2G.

This meant even at the dawn of commonly available smartphones, we still had neither the inbuilt technology to scan QR codes, nor the internet infrastructure to properly take advantage of them.

The “Damn Stupid Effect”

This is a phrase of my own devising, perhaps more comprehensively described as the “Keeping Up with the Jones’s without Knowing What the Hell the Jones’s are Actually Doing or Why”.


This behaviour is depressingly common amongst competitive UK businesses fearful of being seen to have fallen behind the latest technology curve. With every passing year they adopt another potentially useful technology too fast and without proper research or planning, causing poor results and inevitable throwing of babies out with the bathwater.

QR codes in the west were subject to just such idiocy. Where in Japan the infrastructure existed to use QR codes to advertising to fairly meaty, data heavy websites, this simply wasn’t the case in the UK. With its snail like 2G mobile internet and comparatively hefty data costs, western advertisers would have been advised to ensure that any websites linked to were as streamlined and data-light as possible.

Sadly there was no such joined up thinking to be had in the west, so even those hard-core early adopters willing to go to the trouble of downloading a QR reader app (and risk the hefty data fees for the time) inevitably got fed up waiting for whatever online goodies they had been promised by the advert and gave up long before the site’s eventual download.

Add to this the downright stupid placement of many QR ads – the best one I encountered was in an underground carriage (years before WiFi, free or otherwise, was available in the subway, much less any kind of phone signal).

One or two more experiences like that and people simply gave up trying.

So, by the time the technical infrastructure had caught up in the west, both consumers and advertisers alike had given up on them due to their poor performance, even though the concept itself wasn’t flawed at all.

Meanwhile in Japan, and by now China (where QR Readers were an integral part of the country’s ubiquitous WeChat social media app), the system continued to go from strength to strength.

Cultural Heritage

Culture? History? What has any of that got to do with uptake of new technology?

A lot.

The three barriers to market uptake of any new concept are instinctual survival traits in hunter gatherers like us humans: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

For the same reason that our ancestors would tentatively nibble at an unfamiliar fruit (in case it proved poisonous) or stay back from an unfamiliar animal (in case it proved predatory), we will – to this day – pay extra for “familiar” brands over new and untested ones.

We will buy the same make of car, prefer the same musical styles and artists, even ally ourselves to brand “tribes” (such as iPhone versus Android or McDonalds versus Burger King).

In the Europe and the USA the QR code looked like nothing more than a messy square blob, incongruous amongst the colourful and artfully arranged adverts and media they were placed within.

In China and Japan however there was an accidental, yet no less powerful visual familiarity. The family symbol (“Kamon” in Japan, “Tuteng” in China) is analogous to the family crest in the UK.

A historical indicator of pedigree, and therefore quality and trust, these symbols had interesting visual characteristics in common on Both China and Japan – they were small, square, intricate and universally back and white.

Remind you of anything?

The commonality was purely accidental, but it was a happy accident that created a sense of familiarity and therefore trust in eastern users that was simply not present in its western counterparts.

Sociological – A Different Angle

Due to the massive popularity of cameras in both Japan and (since the 1990’s) in China, there is both a greater comfort and acceptance of conspicuous taking of photography.

Along with the many differences in body language between east and west, this different attitude to public picture taking is apparent in the way in which cameras are used.

Here in the west we can be quite self-conscious about bringing a camera out in public and snapping away (unless, of course, we are on holiday abroad).

This makes the idea of taking out and conspicuously holding up our phone to take a shot a less comfortable experience than in the east, where it is perfectly acceptable.

This has had an inevitable knock-on effect on QR reader use, where the user has to hold up their phone to scan the code, usually positioned at or above eye level.

This is perfectly natural behaviour in the east, but in the west many if not most phone users would feel uncomfortable or conspicuous doing this for any length of time.

For example, in China, Japan and many parts of Malaysia, you will find billboards at train stations containing images of all your most commonly purchased groceries, each being accompanied by a QR code.

Simply snap the codes of everything you need, enter your address and payment details and by the time you arrive home so too will be your supermarket delivery van with all your selected purchases.

A great system, but can you imagine anyone taking the time to use that in a UK train station?


If anything the average angle of Western phone users has become steadily more horizontal, and their attention more internal to the phone, while in the East the opposite could be said to be true.

So what next?

So, to summarise, QR Codes in the West have suffered from poor timing, poor infrastructure, poor usage, lack of familiarity and lack of cultural suitability, creating a bad first impression that has hung around them like a bad smell ever since.

In the East they have benefited from clever and timely introduction, a technical infrastructure that could do them justice, a more familiar and socially acceptable appearance and an overall positive first impression that has led to them being an absolutely ubiquitous feature of eastern public life.

So how can we learn from these lessons? What is the modern equivalent of the QR code and how can we ensure that it does not suffer from the same failings in the west as its predecessor?

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