Swedish advertising watchdog rules that the 'distracted boyfriend' meme is sexist

Lowenna Waters
Wednesday 26 September 2018 12:45
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Picture:(AntonioGuillem / iStock Getty )

The 'distracted boyfriend' meme is perhaps one of the internet's most sensational successes - it's everywhere, and used to illustrate things from Brexit to erm, the latest meme trend. Meta.

Anyway, now, the Swedish advertising ombudsman, RO, has criticised a Stockholm company for sexism after it used the famous meme alongside a recruitment advert.

The meme shows an appalled girlfriend looking at her distracted boyfriend, as he admires another woman who is walking past.

A Swedish internet company, Bahnhof, used the meme to advertise their service, with the boyfriend turning away from 'your current service' to look at 'Bahnhof'.

When the advert was shared on social media, it attracted more than 1,000 comments from women, complaining that it was sexist. The Guardian reports that one commenter, Susanne Lahti Hagbard, said:

1. You really don’t want to attract women to your company.

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.

Now, Sweden's advertising watchdog RO has ruled that the meme was 'gender discriminatory', for the way it presents women as 'interchangeable', as 'sex objects' and as presenting a 'stereotypical picture of men seeing women as interchangeable', reports The Local.

The ombudsman, that was unanimous in its decision, issued a statement saying:

It portrays women as interchangeable objects, and that only their appearance is interesting.

According to the committee, the objectification is reinforced by the fact that women are designated as workplace representatives while the man, as the recipient of the advertisement, is being produced as an individual.

In its defence, CEO of Bahnhof, Jon Karlung and head of communications Anya Alenberg said:

Everyone who follows the internet and meme culture knows how the meme is used and interpreted.

[Whether someone is a] man, woman or neutral gender is often irrelevant in this context.

We are an internet company and are conversant in this, as are those who would look for a job with us, so we turned to that target group. 

If we should be punished for anything, it's for using an old and tired meme. 

The meme gained traction in 2017, when it was shared widely, and even elicited a number of articles analysing its popularity.

Sweden features near the top of the world's gender-equality rankings, despite the fact that a 2016 report found that it is the worst of the Nordic countries at combatting sexism, reports The Guardian.

In June this year, the Stockholm council voted to ban advertisements that were deemed as sexist from public billboards in the city.

More: People are calling this 18th century painting the original ‘distract your boyfriend’ meme

More: Charlie Chaplin invented the 'Distracted Boyfriend' meme 96 years ago

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