Swedish Ad Agency Rule Internet Meme Sexist
Distracted Boyfriend meme deemed sexist by Swedish advertising ombudsman

Internet memes, once only shared on Reddit and 4Chan, have now become a common medium that’s used to deliver strong messages. The Internet is currently awash with several of them and is used to describe current scenarios prominent in the news. One such popular meme, known around as the “Distracted Boyfriend meme”, depicts the imagery of a man turning behind to admiringly stare at another woman while walking with his girlfriend, who is seemingly outraged by his decision. The image, also known as Man Looking at Other Woman, was captured as a photograph by Barcelona based Antonio Guillem. It went on to become the meme of the year 2017, widely shared to depict someone choosing an entity or ideology over the one currently present with them. However, the Swedish advertising ombudsman, RO, have now ruled the meme to be sexist – saying it degrades women and is discriminatory against them.

The ruling came after a Swedish internet service provider, Bahnhof, used the meme to advertise the company. The ad labeled the boyfriend “You”, the girlfriend “Your current workplace”, and the second woman “Bahnhof”. It was clearly meant to depict that Bahnhof is the internet provider that you crave for while being stuck with sub-par internet connection at work. However, the ad, posted on Facebook in April 2018, received severe criticism online – drawing more than 1,000 comments.

The comments derided Bahnhof’s advertising strategy. While one commenter stated, “You really don’t want to attract women to your company”, another said, “You really don’t want to attract sensible guys either.” Swedish citizen Sofie Sundåker also replied, stating, “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 ombudsman, RO, has ruled the ad to be sexist. “The advertisement objectifies women,” it 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.”

In response, Bahnhof said on its Facebook page that its aim had been “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.” It also added that “Anyone familiar with the internet and meme culture knows how this meme is used and interpreted. Gender is usually irrelevant in the context”.

While Bahnhof went on to explain the meme culture to the Swedish ad agency, they interpreted the post differently. The Swedish advertising industry is self-regulating, meaning that the ombudsman can criticize ads but it does not have the power to impose sanctions.

While Sweden is one the global leaders for world gender-equality rankings, a 2016 study found it was also ranked the worst among Nordic countries at combating sexist advertising. In February 2018, Stockholm council voted to ban ads deemed sexist or degrading from the city’s public billboards. Nonetheless, Bahnhof has taken the ruling with a pinch of salt, stating if the company was to be punished for anything, it would be for “using a tired old meme”.

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