Viral 'distracted boyfriend' meme is sexist, ad watchdog rules

Umberto Bacchi, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Sep 27 2018 01:10 AM | Updated as of Sep 27 2018 01:44 AM

LONDON- A viral meme showing a man staring at another woman while walking with his girlfriend has been ruled sexist by Sweden's advertising watchdog, after the picture was used by a local internet company to publicise job vacancies on social media.

Internet service provider Bahnhof posted the image on Facebook earlier this year, superimposing the words "You" over the admiring man, "Your current employer" over his outraged girlfriend, and "Bahnhof" over the woman, who appears oblivious.

Variations of the meme known as "distracted boyfriend" have been widely shared online to mock anything from politics and sports to fashion trends since it first went viral last year.

But Sweden's advertising ombudsman said the meme, based on a stock photo by Spanish photographer Antonio Guillem, objectified women and reinforced gender stereotypes when used in an advert.

"The depiction ... imparts a stereotypical image of men looking at women as being interchangeable like a workplace, which is degrading," the ombudsman wrote in the decision published this week.

Bahnhof said it wanted to portray itself as an attractive employer to potential jobseekers in a playful way.

"Anyone familiar with internet and meme culture knows how this meme is used and interpreted ... we explained its purpose and meme culture to the ombudsman, but it chose to interpret the post in a different way," the company said in a statement.

Clara Berglund, the head of women's rights group the Swedish Women's Lobby, welcomed the ruling, which serves only as a public rebuke because the ombudsman cannot impose sanctions.

"It is still very common to use images and messages that play on gender stereotypes or use women's bodies to draw attention to a product," she said.

"The fact that we are surrounded by these images on our way to work or school and in our daily life is a constant reminder of the inequality between women and men that still exists in our society," Berglund told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Stockholm's city council voted in June to ban sexist advertising from all public spaces across the city.