QR codes have been called many names. Ugly. Has-been. A failure. Marketing expert Scott Stratten even has a book out called "QR Codes Kill Kittens."
But not so fast: In China, those checkerboard-like codes are enjoying a renaissance.
That's thanks to WeChat, Tencent's hot mobile app, which has 272 million monthly active users and features a QR code scanner. WeChat blends elements of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, and it's branching into e-commerce.
QR codes – which let people scan a code using their smartphone to enter contests, connect with brands on social media or buy products -- have long been prominent in Japan and South Korea.
When WeChat started pushing QR codes in China, suddenly a technology dating back to 1990s Japan had new potential, and some wondered if Western advertisers had missed something.
"We're always pursuing new technologies, but we shouldn't be so dismissive of old ones – sometimes all we need is to find a new use for those technologies to give them a new lease of life," said Kestrel Lee, executive creative director of Zeno Asia, who points out that RFID or radio frequency identity technology now used in tagging retail goods was first used during World War II to identify aircraft.
One likely reason for QR codes' success in China, the world's No. 1 smartphone market, is that many consumers are more accustomed to mobile internet than desktop computers. To them, using a phone to scan a code comes more naturally than typing a web address.
Numbers on usage are hard to come by, but mobile coupon company Imageco tallied 113.6 million QR codes scanned in China in October 2013, up more than 38% from the month before.
Some in China use personal QR codes to identify themselves on social media. The codes are also at the heart of a price-comparison app called Wochacha, with 140 million users.
Western brands feature them prominently. Shanghai car lovers scanned a QR code for a chance to test drive an Audi Q3; runners use them to join a Nike+ running club in their area.
We-Chat's rival, e-commerce giant Alibaba, turned to QR codes to encourage offline-to-online shopping during a mega-sale on Nov. 11. People visited brick-and-mortar stores, selected purchases and scanned QRs code to stash items in their online shopping cart ahead of the sale.
A month later, during a Dec. 12 shopping event, Alibaba's Taobao marketplace put a QR code on its website. Shoppers scanned the code 200,000 times in just one minute to try to win a lottery ticket, Alibaba said.
As in the West, QR codes don't work unless the creative is good and people have an incentive to scan them. Sticking a QR code onto an ad isn't enough.
Grace Zhou, general manager of the joint venture between outdoor giant JCDecaux Group and Shanghai Shentong Metro Group, says 70% of the ads it runs feature QR codes, but "so far, we don't see many passengers use them."
Another problem: "They're currently the best way to link between the offline world to mobile, but they're not visually appealing," said Amber Liu, founder of Chinese digital agency Amber Communications, which recently used one in a Christmas campaign for Lindt chocolate.
More sophisticated augmented reality technologies might break through in China. But as long as WeChat backs QR codes they are here to stay, and there are efforts to beautify them.
Israel-based Visualead, which has a heavy China focus and won a startup competition here, lets businesses and designers blend QR codes with photos or art. It also can integrate QR codes into videos or animation for digital screens.
"Visual QR codes don't have to be static, they can be animated -- or even embedded in a video -- to include a visual call to action, like someone inviting you to scan or an avatar winking at you," said Oded Israeli, Visualead's VP for marketing. "Animation is very popular in China, and we think it will bring another edge to QR codes."