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Swedish ad watchdog rules ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme is sexist

Popular image of man ogling another woman deemed degrading and discriminatory

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 10:52pm

The popular Distracted Boyfriend meme, based on a photo of a man turning away from his outraged girlfriend to stare admiringly at another woman, has been ruled sexist by Sweden’s advertising ombudsman.

The stock image, also known as Man Looking at Other Woman, by Antonio Guillem, a photographer from Barcelona, was named meme of the year in April and was one of the most widely shared memes in 2017, providing comment on anything from music to politics to hit TV shows.

The ombudsman said recruitment advertisements posted on Facebook by the internet services provider Bahnhof, which labelled the boyfriend “You”, the girlfriend “Your current workplace”, and the second woman “Bahnhof”, were gender-discriminatory, the Local reported.

“The advertisement objectifies women,” the ombudsman, RO, said.

“It presents women as interchangeable items and suggests only their appearance is interesting … It also shows degrading stereotypical gender roles of both men and women and gives the impression men can change female partners as they change jobs.”

The ombudsman said the image objectified the two women by presenting them as workplaces, but the man as an individual, and added that the “other woman” was clearly a “sex object … unrelated to the advertisement, which is for recruiting salespeople, operating engineers and a web designer”.

The Swedish advertising industry is self-regulating, meaning that the ombudsman can criticise ads but it does not have the power to impose sanctions.

The ad, posted in April, drew nearly 1,000 comments, many from women who complained it was sexist.

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“1. You really don’t want to attract women to your company,” one commenter, Susanne Lahti Hagbard, said.

“2. You really don’t want to attract sensible guys either.”

Another, Sofie Sundåker, said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a popular meme. If you do not see how this picture is sexist whatever words are on the people, you are clearly not a workplace for any woman who wants to be taken seriously in her work.”

The company said on its Facebook page that its aim had been “to illustrate a situation that shows Bahnhof is an attractive employer, and that people who have a slightly duller workplace might be interested in us. This was the situation illustrated in this meme.

“Anyone familiar with the internet and meme culture knows how this meme is used and interpreted. Gender is usually irrelevant in the context. We explained meme culture to the ombudsman, but it chose to interpret the post differently”.

If the company should be punished for anything, it concluded, “it should be for using a tired old meme”.

While it frequently features near the top of world gender-equality rankings, a 2016 study found Sweden was the worst of the Nordic countries at combating sexist advertising.

This year, Stockholm council voted to bar ads deemed sexist or degrading from the city’s public billboards.