'Distracted Boyfriend' meme deemed 'sexist' by Swedish ad watchdog

  • 27/09/2018
The image "portrays women as interchangeable", the Swedish ombudsman claims.
The image "portrays women as interchangeable", the Swedish ombudsman claims. Photo credit: Twitter / Distracted Boyfriend

One of the internet's most recognisable memes has been ruled sexist by Sweden's advertising ombudsman. 

The stock image, known as 'Man Looking at Other Woman' by Barcelona-based photographer Antonio Guillem, features a woman looking at the man next to her with disapproval as he turns to look at another woman passing by. 

The meme has been edited countless times by internet users to reflect the particular message they want to portray. The man often represents the reaction of someone looking toward their guilty pleasure, while the angry girlfriend represents morality. 

The Swedish advertising watchdog made its ruling in reaction to recruitment advertisements posted on Facebook by Swedish internet services provider Bahnof. In the meme, the man is labelled 'You', the girlfriend is labelled 'Your current workplace', and the other woman is labelled 'Bahnof'. 

It seems the internet services provider was implying through tongue-and-cheek that working for the company would be more enjoyable than working for others. But the advertising ombudsman said the ad is gender-discriminatory, Swedish news website The Local reports.  

The meme "portrays women as interchangeable objects, and that only their appearance is interesting," the ombudsman wrote, which was unanimous in its decision, The Local reports. It added that there is no link between the company's services and the objectified women. 

"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," the judgment said. 

"It gives the impression that men might change female partners in the same way they change jobs," the judgement adds. "One notifier pointed out that Bahnhof may put off female applicants with the advertisement."

The ad, posted in April, gathered almost 1000 comments, mainly from women, complaining that it was sexist, The Guardian reports.  

In its defence, the internet services provider said it was simply trying to imply that "Bahnof is an attractive employer and that those who have a slightly less good employer could be interested in us."

A statement by the company, signed by CEO Jon Karlung, said a person's gender is "irrelevant" when it comes to selecting employees. The statement said if the company should be punished for anything, it's for "using an old and tired meme."

The 'Distracted Boyfriend' meme first went viral in 2017, and was listed among the top memes of that year by multiple publications. It was named 'Meme of the Year' in April at the 10th Shorty Awards, which honour the best content creators and producers on social media. 

The Swedish ombudsman's ruling comes after Stockholm's city council voted in June to have all advertising billboards removed that appear to be sexist.