This is Sartre.

This is me scratching an itch.

Although there are plenty of statistics that suggest people have scanned QR codes out and about, used Blippar watching television and Aurasma whilst reading their sportsday match programmes, I’m a bit of a sceptic.

Virgin’s provision of free WiFi on the London Underground, the service notably being free to use on Vodafone and EE, has led many to ponder how this will impact on marketing and advertising in the subterranean rat race.

Some have claimed augmented reality (AR) will start to take off as the technology matures along with marketers, and there’s a signal to enable web content for QR codes/ RFID and the like.

However, unless scanning is heavily incentivised, I’m of the opinion there are at least five reasons why this isn’t going to be heavily adopted, and you can agree or disagree in our comments section below.

Mobiles are used by travellers to get rid of subjectivity

Let’s start with a philosophical one. Hell is other people, and other stuff. Escaping into our phones is what we love to do to avoid the world, and there’s no place as synonymous with people ignoring everything than the London Underground.

Using a phone to scan an ad reveals a little bit about you, and could even invite comment. Ergo, not on the Northern Line.

With good WiFi, the underground isn’t a restricted market for ads

If the WiFi is decent, I’m going to be using the web in the same way as I do above ground, but with even greater prioritising of what I load, due to the limited connectivity when underground (only at stations).

Therefore I’m not going to scan an advert for hair loss on a whim (for myriad reasons), or even for a new movie, unless scanning these things is highly incentivised.

Network restrictions are annoying

When I use the WiFi at the moment to Google something, I’m directed to an annoying Virgin gateway page, that stops me from performing many web-based actions, even preventing me from refreshing certain apps.

My email works (blast!) but these restrictions will likely impact on the ability to link to the web from physical ad space, unless care is taken to keep everyone joined up (easier said than done).

Commuters have to keep moving

Stopping pretty much anywhere is not the done thing during the rush hour, even for five or six seconds to scan an ad. The escalators obviously move, too.

The places commuters do stand still on the underground – waiting for a train, or sitting on a train – often only offer obstructed views of ads.

When you’re on a train underground, there’s only WiFi at the moment in each station, not in between, so QR codes on trains (at least in the middle of the network) are still a no.

One thing this does indicate is that perhaps advertisers can prioritise for off-peak traffic, if they are willing to produce scannable posters on the underground network.

To some extent this already happens with advertising underground, as local(ish) evening entertainment takes a decent chunk of the ad space.

Augmented reality isn’t that cool. Its main use will be for directions or finding out about strangers

If I have a tablet on the Underground I can access tons of truly great art. Music, fine art, films, tv series etc. As we’ve seen from Vine, it’s gonna take truly great creative to make a highly reduced interaction time worthwhile.

If I’m scanning an AR poster, it’s going to have to do something truly amazing (outside of some colours and movement) to keep my interest.

Including social content (pics or vids of my Facebook/Twitter friends) or local content (directions to attractions nearby) will probably be the best use of scannable or augmented advertising. These are going to come into play above ground in a big way, once Google glasses and the like get further down their respective waterfalls. 

Inevitably, augmented reality will be another version of reality. What I mean is an augmented reality isn’t going to be one the user wants stuffed with cool moving graphics and adverts.

Giving us information about strangers, and directing us to useful stuff, as well as offering us incentives for both these end uses, is going be the real beauty of using technology out and about.

Ben Davis

Published 5 February, 2013 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (10)

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well, does anybody use qr codes in general?
I can't remember when I was using the QR code in last 5 years.

over 5 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff


I've tried to use a QR in earnest once, to get info on ordering more recycling bags from my council, but the code wasn't readable.

I suspect this is the tip of the user-apathy iceberg, and the frustration has been fairly well documented, not least in comments on the Econ blog.

Be good to get some feedback on worthwhile AR.

over 5 years ago


Oliver Bishop

QR is generally really badly implemented. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong results usually. It's a gimmick for marketeers and tends to get used on one campaign and then quietly dropped.

AR and Aurasma in particular are a triumph of marketing to marketeers, they must have clever sales guys. A not very good solution looking for a problem right now.

over 5 years ago


Neale Gilhooley

I have a QR scanner on my mobile and it gets used once a month, but usually as I am interested in a campaign not as a consumer. If used correctly they can be valuable for fast contact & product info preferably incentivised with a promo offer.

I recently saw some QR codes on Underground posters on the escalators…. As if anyone will make the effort to whip out their mobile and open the scanner app and then scan a code while gliding down a moving staircase, surrounded by others. Yes the poster was repeated but that just gives me 4 chances to make a mobile fool of myself, try testing marketers.

AR, if you have pots of money to burn give it a try.

over 5 years ago

John Kimbell

John Kimbell, Managing Partner at Navigate Digital

Never been a big fan of QR codes to be honest. Too many advertisers use QR codes gratutiously and without consideration of the points Ben has raised.

For me a much better alternative is Blippar - there have been some really good examples of brands using this successfully. Whilst it also has its limitations, it does deliver more than a QR code if executed properly.

over 5 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Oliver, Neale

Yep, this could be a hideous generalisation but I think ambitious but not necessarily savvy marketers are using QR codes to make themselves seem progressive internally.

e.g. I was on a train a year or so ago, eavesdropping on a marketer who was in insurance talking about doing a 'boobs or bums' poster campaign on the underground, and mentioned throwing in a QR code.

I think RFID will be more effective, as we can relate better to touching something for information.


Yes, Blippar I've seen has had some success, and partly I believe because it's targeted to users at home, or at least in comfort - with tv ads, print ads in newspapers etc.

over 5 years ago


Jess Butcher

Great article. But what you're discussing, isn't really 'augmented reality' but visual discovery/ image-recognition. 'AR' is simply a way of delivering a content experience that 'floats' as if in the real world. Blippar can do this -but it's much more important, as you say, that the content is relevant, valuable, entertaining or functional than floating around unnecessarily. This could be a trailer that plays full screen whilst you're bored, waiting. or a coupon you can pull 'out' of a poster and redeem when next above ground. Escalators are definitely a no-no (!), but platform advertising presents a great opportunity to convert waiting boredom into an action/ entertaining experience - as long as you don't hold your phone out too far! ( & agree with you on Virgin annoying landing pages!).

over 5 years ago


Steve Schildwachter

I'd like to talk about AR. On the one hand, you're right, it won't see much use on the tube for the reasons you cite.

On the other hand, rebutting your point #5, AR becomes a lot cooler at retail, and THAT'S where people will use it.

Part of my thinking is that we will expand our concept of AR as developers find new ways to apply it.

Likewise, it will soon get to the everyone-now-has-it topping point, where the adoption curve goes up suddenly.

over 5 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff


Yep, I agree. However, the point still stands that to augment reality through a phone still limits creative to a small window on the world.

When this is switched to glasses down the line, and stuff can be superimposed on our whole field of vision, I can see adoption increasing.

over 5 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff


Thanks for commenting. Great to have Blippar chip in to the debate.

Certainly pulling a coupon out of a poster and redeeming above ground sounds like a good use of Blippar and I can see this working at less busy stations or off-peak periods.

At the moment of course we're at that stage where there are many devices, many different scanners, and the consumer isn't confident enough. I believe that's a product of the technology being used pretty much exclusively for marketing at the moment.

It's hard to get the consumer's trust with advertising even without the middleman of new technology and the increased burden of time.

Can you see RFID taking off (I've seen it at London bus stops with clearchannel)? It does remove the shaky hand problem :-)

over 5 years ago

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