The notorious Distracted Boyfriend meme in which a man turns away from his girlfriend to check out another woman walking by has been declared sexist by Sweden’s advertising watchdog. The image, which also goes by the name Man Looking at Other Woman was taken by Antonio Guillem, a Barcelona photographer. One of the most widely distributed memes of the last year, it was selected as the meme of the year in April.
The advertising watchdog stated ads posted on Facebook by Bahnhof, an internet provider, which used the meme, labeling the boyfriend “You”, the girlfriend “Your current workplace”, and the woman walking by “Bahnhof”, were gender-discriminatory.
“The advertisement objectifies women,” RO, the watchdog, 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.”
RO added that the image objectified the two women by showing them as places of work, while the man was shown as a person. It also said that the “other woman” was clearly intended to be a “sex object ... unrelated to the ad, which is to recruit salespeople, operating engineers, and a web designer.”
The advertising watchdog only has the power to criticize ads, but not to impose fines, since the Swedish advertising industry is self-regulating. The ad, which was posted in April, received almost 1,000 comments, many from women who found it sexist. “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 commenter, 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 defended itself on Facebook, saying that its goal was “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.”
Although Sweden is often praised for its gender-equality, a 2016 study showed that the Scandinavian country had a poor record when it came to combating sexism in advertising. This year, Stockholm’s city council voted to ban sexist and degrading ads from public billboards.
A report commissioned by the Swedish government in 2008 recommended a ban on all sexist advertising, although no measures were passed at the time. In 2014, the Social Democrats, who are currently governing in coalition with the Green Party, said they would enact the report’s suggestions if they came to power.
The Stockholm ban is similar to bans in other European cities. Last year, Paris banned sexist, misogynistic and homophobic ads from local billboards, and Berlin has also considered a similar ban.