The future of advertising is here, and it’s a giant QR code formed by drones flying over Shanghai

Society & Culture

Video streaming app Bilbili got people talking with a huge advertisement in the skies above Shanghai — a scannable QR code formed by drones.

shanghai drones

Unless you shut down your smartphone or laptop and smashed them under a rock, then you’ve probably seen this photo that has been making the rounds online this week.


— Pathfinder 🅁🅅🄽 ⛏️₿⚡🍸 (@Pathfinder) April 17, 2021

If not, let me recap! Last Saturday, a huge, mysterious QR code appeared in the night sky of Shanghai, above the Bund, the city’s iconic waterfront promenade.

Bilibili, an enormously popular Chinese video sharing and streaming site, used 1,500 computer-controlled drones to create the illuminated image, which was part of a two-minute light show designed to celebrate the first anniversary of the China release of Princess Connect! Re:Dive, a role-playing video game first unveiled in Japan in 2018. 

Bilibili also made a video that showed off some additional drone formations, including depictions of characters in the game, and a message saying “happy birthday.” The demonstration concluded with the QR code, which, when scanned, leads to a download page for the game (the code in the photo above still works) .

As images of the display started to spread on social media, some people complained, calling the promotional stunt dystopian light pollution. Others, mostly people who work in advertising and marketing, thought it was awe-inspiring. And a lot of people were in the middle, saying they didn’t know what to think of it because it looked both cool and creepy at the same time.

Gaming analyst Daniel Ahmad chimed in and pointed out that putting up massive QR codes in public places had been at the center of Bilibili’s marketing campaign for Princess Connect! Re:Dive since the very beginning. Last summer, Bilibili pulled a similar stunt to promote the game, in which it decorated one side of its company building in Shanghai with a giant QR code.

bilibili princess drones“The reason something like this works in China is because QR codes are everywhere,” he explained. “Adding a friend on a messaging app? Scan their QR Code. Sending a payment to someone or a retailer? Scan their QR Code. QR codes never took off this way in the West. In China they are familiar.”

Skies in China have increasingly become a battleground for advertisers hoping to seize the power of drone performances. Earlier this month, Hyundai’s luxury vehicle brand Genesis marked its arrival in China by employing 3,281 illuminated drones to paint its logo and other brand-related images over Shanghai. The number of drones it mobilized set a new Guinness World Record for “The Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously,” according to a press release by the organization.

Vandals, or marketing pioneers? History will be the judge.