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Distracted Boyfriend meme ruled sexist by Sweden's ad watchdog: 'Degrading,' 'objectifies women

A meme based on the viral Distracted Boyfriend image has been deemed sexist by Sweden’s advertising ombudsman. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

You would've been hard pressed to travel the internet lately and not see the popular Distracted Boyfriend image, which depicts a man swiveling his head backward to gawk at a woman walking in the opposite direction while his girlfriend glares at him in anger.

Well, a meme based on the viral image has been deemed sexist by Sweden’s advertising ombudsman, The Guardian reported.

Turns out recruitment ads posted to Facebook by the internet service provider Bahnhof added labels to the boyfriend ("You"), the girlfriend (“Your current workplace”), and the woman walking away (“Bahnhof”) — and the ombudsman ruled the ads gender-discriminatory, the outlet said, citing the Local.

The translated text on the Facebook post reads, "Looking for a new job? Right now we're looking for sellers, technicians and a varsity webbdesigner. Check out our page with free services here: https://www.bahnhof.se/om/karriar."

What else did the ombudsman say?

"The advertisement objectifies women,” the ombudsman said, The Guardian reported. “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 added that the ad objectifies the women as workplaces but presents the gawking man as an individual, the outlet said, adding that the woman walking away is a “sex object ... unrelated to the advertisement, which is for recruiting salespeople, operating engineers and a web designer.”

What are the implications of the ruling?

Since the Swedish advertising industry is self-regulating, the ombudsman can call out ads but has no authority to impose sanctions, The Guardian said.

What have others said about the ad?

The ad was posted in April and has drawn nearly 1,000 comments, some of which also complained of sexism, the outlet noted:

  • 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."
  • “It doesn’t matter if it’s a popular meme," Sofie Sundåker commented. "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.”

How did the company behind the ad react to the ruling?

The Guardian reported that the company behind the ad said on its Facebook page that it wanted “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."

Bahnhof said if it should be punished, "it should be for using a tired old meme,” the outlet said.

What did the photographer of the original image have to say?

“I never thought that one of my images will be that popular,” stock image photographer Antonio Guillem of Spain told Wired earlier this year. “I didn’t even know what a meme is until recently, when the models started to tell me about the memes that people were doing with our work.”

What other memes have resulted from the image?

As you might imagine, Bahnhof hasn't been alone in harnessing the image for some meme action — and The Guardian even got in on it:

One last thing…
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