Guide for the Perplexed: QR Codes

From Clever Cupcakes, Montreal (@clever_cupcakes)

Ever seen those square bar code-looking thingies on the bus or train or in a magazine and wonder what they were? They’re called QR Codes and they are being used increasingly in interactive marketing in the U.S.

These little barcodes can store text or URL info and are used to  point  your phone to information  like websites,  videos, contact information, etc. Some visual artists have incorporated QR codes into their work,  such as this 2009 public art exhibition in Amsterdam , and some entreprenuers have adopted novel uses for the technology like the above QR Code cupcakes for Twestival Montreal, a Twitter – based charity event.

Having originated in Japan, QR Codes have been used for marketing and entertainment in Japan and Korea for years now and are nearly ubiquitous, but for the most part hasn’t caught on here in the U.S. with the same enthusiasm. I have two theories as to why:

1.) Consumers haven’t been sufficiently educated about what QR Codes actually are and how to use them by the companies/organizations using them.

I noticed an ad on the train earlier today promoting a non-profit. There was a QR Code at the bottom. The text: “Take a picture of this QR Code to learn more about us!”

Two people on the train were looking at the ad. One person asks the other, “What’s a QR Code?” The other says “Oh, it’s a Google app.”

There were two levels of fail going on here. First off, the ad itself failed to explain what a what a QR code is and only vaguely explained how to use it. Secondly, I believe the individual on the trainl who did recognize what a QR Code was had conflated QR Codes in general with one particular use of the technology,  specifically Google Places.

In general the  marketing/tech world has a bit of work to do to educate the public on this technology. It’s not difficult, but some level of explanation would help to encourage its use, which them brings me to the other issue hindering the use of QR Codes:

2.) Most of the time QR Codes point to really boring content that no one cares about

Most of the time, scanning a QR code doesn’t really offer much for the user. Marketers use QR codes as a vaguely interesting way to point people to existing content that users wouldn’t care about even if they were sitting at their computers at home: boring websites, boring ads, boring contact information. There’s still a “so what” factor with QR codes, where the content hasn’t caught up with the technology. What would motivate someone to scan a QR code when they can check out your organization’s website at home or work? Offering exclusive information or special deals could be the solution.

I was definitely on the QR Code bandwagon for a while, encouraging it for my workplace and for volunteer projects. I still think it’s a great technology with a lot of potential uses but waiting for it to catch on surely isn’t working. The company or organization that manages to educate users while offering something new and different will eventually win this race. It could be Google, based on the exchange I saw on the train, but time will tell.

The Economics of Hello Kitty, or what will save the brand of the world’s master of cute overload?


Hello Kitty seems to be falling on tough economic times — at least according to the New York Times. This is despite her appointment in 2008 as the Japanese official ambassador for tourism. Unlike many other brands, as The Learned Fangirl, stated at the time of her ambassadorship,

One of the oddly interesting elements about Hello Kitty is that there isn’t a starting product; she is a brand of kitty cuteness, the epitome of kawaii.

Kawaii — the idea of ultimate cuteness and the acquiring of this status — is what has propelled Hello Kitty and her business overlord (Sanrio) into a Japanese brand phenomenon, worth $5 billion a year. Perhaps Japanese and worldwide audiences are tiring of the need for sweet after 36 years, but that isn’t the entire story.

At least according to Steven Colbert’s reportage on the new Hello Kitty wine, demonstrates that Kitty is being marketed to all, not just as a childrens’ character (though the Hello Kitty licensed vespa and MAC cosmetics should have made that clear!).

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Transformative Reinterpretation or Total Rip-off?: Namie Amuro and Copy That

At what point is copying

  • homage (as a way of honoring and being respectful of the original)  even through direct copying?
  • transformative (in the traditional copyright sense) as building upon the original to create new meaning?
  • or copying as a means of economically exploiting copyrighted works?

This first post in a series about the difficulties in making this distinction focuses on three different examples of how difficult it is to carefully draw these lines, focusing on Japanese pop star Namie Amuro’s Copy That (official Vidal Sassoon music video-ish commercial above), and later posts will focus on Glee’s Madonna and Lady Gaga episodes, and Christina Aguilera’s Not Myself Tonight video (and dance responses), and other similar situations.

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What Harujuku? and Gossip Manwha

As a followup to our recent posts about anime and Korean dramas, we have more about the cross-cultural influence of pop culture from Asia, or what Lisa Katayama calls on BoingBoing, the weird /othering of Japanese pop culture moves on to fashion.

The New York Times recently had an article on the difficulty of Japanese fashion designers to find recognition outside of Japan. Surprisingly, there was only passing reference to the appropriation of Japanese fashion — completely sans mention of the problematic aspects of Gwen Stefani and her fashion line, Harujuku Girls.

There was also no mention of the subcultural aspects of Japanese fashion that have found success outside of Japan, including anime fans, especially through cosplay — and the San Francisco branches of the Gothic Lolita store, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright and the Japanese store, Black Peace Now.

And considering that NYC’s FIT recently had the Gothic: Dark Glamour exhibition, including panels and fashion from Japanese subculture, this omission from the NYTimes article is striking.

However, the article did include mentions of the Lolita fashion trend thusly:

(Although Lolita style is a reference to the Vladimir Nabokov novel “Lolita,” its look is more covered-up Victorian schoolgirl than skin-baring teenage vixen.)

— and yes, the original was in parentheses.

I’m not sure why in an article about the Japanese fashion trends this description of the Lolita fashion style was viewed as a sufficient description — girly steampunk would have been more appropriate, but that is likely still too subcultural.

Interestingly, Google search filters out the word lolita from Google SafeSearch — even though this is the title of a well-regarded novel!!!

On the other hand, Jezebel recently highlighted the licensed manhwa version of Gossip Girl. Interestingly, even the publisher decided to describe this graphic novel / comic by a Korean artist as manga (the term for this art literature from Japan) rather than manhwa (for Korean litart). Considering the growing influence of hallyu as the appropriate term for Korean pop culture, and the growing understanding about the difference between graphic novels/comics from Japan and Korea, I’m really surprised by the lack of distinction. Blair would be highly disappointed!

Why you should watch Inuyasha on Hulu

Want to see the latest episodes of Inuyasha as they air? Or if feudal Japan plus magic isn’t your thing, how about the latest incarnation of robots plus teenagers making the world a peaceful place via war in Gundam 00? Or prefer shojo? How about Fruits Basket, a bittersweet dramedy with supernatural elements, and Ouran High School Host Club, a shoujo comedy of errors?

All of these very popular shows are now available online via legal means. Considering that a year and a half ago, The Learned Fangirl had a post Fansubs Don’t Grow On Trees: Gundam 00 and the new ethics of fansubbing, the increased number of legal sites is a positive response from content owners/licensees.

That post ended with:

So it’s an interesting point we’re at with anime fandom, just as with music fandom, where the much of the fan expectation is lightning-fast turnaround and professional-level quality from fansubbers without also participating said volunteer efforts, or intending to financially support the original creators in any way. Without sounding too much like a fogey, I wonder at what point does this interpretation of the Free Culture mentality hinder fandom just as much as big business and restrictive copyright does.

But even though there are so many avenues to legally stream licensed anime, fansubbing is still continuing. Even now, considering that there is often a delay between original air date and release in the U.S., several popular licensed shows have active fansub communities.

But this activity isn’t going unnoticed by the content owners/licensors. According to Otaku Pride, in response to pushback regarding a DMCA takedowns for specific fansubs, Funimation, an American licensor, tweeted:

  • Less $ spent on anime in U.S = fewer dvd’s in stores = less $ to buy titles from JPN = less $ for production = fewer anime = Global impact!
  • We get that fansubs exist. We get that people watch them. In fact, we totally get that its the only way to watch some series because those series may not get licensed in the U.S. -BUT- I want others to get how supporting fansubs of licensed series hurts the industry.

I’m very glad that the anime industry is making so much content available  for free that fans actually want to see. And by watching on these legal sites (plus, hopefully in the minds of content owners, buying DVDs and merch), fans help make it possible for these and other anime shows to be created and produced.

But that isn’t to say that there aren’t still issues for both the content providers and the fans. For example, there are plenty of examples on both YouTube and Veoh of episodes of licensed shows available on those sites in non-licensed formats  (this doesn’t mean fanvids — this means exact duplicates of the licensed episodes — sans links to the licensed versions on the same site!)  And even worse for the conscientious fan, the search functionality often doesn’t put the licensed content first or sort in any way.

I’m glad that unlike the music industry as a whole the anime industry understands that fans are fans (and consumers) and not content vaccuums. So one final note for any anime execs that are reading this — if you are sending takedown notices against fansubbers and websites, it would be a good idea to allow the first episode to stay up, allowing new potential fans to have a try!

It’ll be interesting to see what changes happen to the distribution of anime in another year and a half!

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When is 1000 true music fans not enough?: Faith No More, Kylie Minogue, hallyu, and J-pop

If you don’t know the artists (Faith No More & Kylie Minogue) and musical genres (J-pop & hallyu) mentioned in the title of this post, that doesn’t make you odd. You just aren’t aware of these music more popular outside of the U.S. (and the “hallyu wave” is not limited to music).

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have fans — they have many! The U.S. music audience often doesn’t get to hear the music popular elsewhere, yet American music is popular worldwide.

As Frederick Stiehl in his article about J-pop/Hallyu artist BoA,

America has known few foreign artists outside of Latin America or Britain. Indeed, America has proven itself to be quite resistant to foreign singers, and especially to non-English artists. A few exceptions include Icelandic Bjork and German Rammstein …. However, both of these artists demonstrate a specialized style, known to but not followed by “mainstream” Americans.

So where does subgenre begin when it includes an international superstar like Kylie Minogue?

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Mini book reviews: three important books on the impact of Japanese popular culture plus one

I’ve been reading several interesting books on both the cultural and economic significance of Japanese popular culture, ranging from a general overview, to the business of manga, to the importance of Pokémon to children’s culture worldwide. All of these books are recommended.

Pikachu’s global adventure: the rise and fall of Pokémon (Joseph Tobin, ed. 2004) is a collection of essays about the cultural and economic significance of Pokémon, especially as an overarching brand (or as Henry Jenkins would explain as an example of convergence culture). The book pre-dates the release of the Wii, yet covers the first years of the phenomenon. In a footnote, the reason for Brock’s absence for a year from the television show is explained — the producers were concerned that his features would be perceived as too Asian or foreign in the U.S.;  kids loved Brock and he was brought back.

Roland Kelts, Japanamerica : how Japanese pop culture has invaded the U.S. (2007) — the title is truly inaccurate — the book is an overview of Japanese popular culture and why certain elements of Japanese popular culture are interesting to Americans, but not an examination of the impact of manga and anime outside of Japan.

Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga (2000) is an excellent overview of the cultural production of  manga, including discussions of the business (publishers, authors/artists, editors), mainstream manga (including on politically significant manga), Doujinshi (amateur manga), economic charts!, and even the legal regulations of and censorship efforts surrounding manga. Highly recommended.

Since I haven’t been able to find another place to mention Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity here it is: The chapter on Star Wars marketing and fan culture is recommended for its discussion of the deflector shield Lucasfilm places around Star Wars.