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‘Distracted boyfriend’ meme is sexist, say Swedish authorities

‘Distracted boyfriend’ meme is sexist, say Swedish authorities
Advertising authorities in Sweden have criticized a major internet service provider for using a viral meme which “objectifies” women as “interchangeable objects” in one of its recruitment ads on social media.

Sweden’s Advertising Ombudsman (RO) criticized internet service provider Bahnhof for using the popular ‘Distracted boyfriend’ meme in a recruitment advertisement, describing it as sexist. The meme shows a couple walking in hand in hand, but the man has wandering eyes for another lady in the frame. It began going viral in the summer of 2017.

In Bahnhof’s version, “you” are the boyfriend, “your current workplace” is the current girlfriend, and “Bahnhof” is the object of his desire.

“It portrays women as interchangeable objects, and that only their appearance is interesting,” the advertising watchdog wrote in its decision. “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 committee’s decision was unanimous, ruling that the posts, regardless of intention, were gender-discriminatory for portraying women as “interchangeable,” as “sex objects,” and for presenting a “stereotypical image of men seeing women as interchangeable.”

The company was heavily criticized online for the advert, which it posted to both its Facebook and Instagram accounts in April this year.

“I really do not see the ‘funny and humorous’ side of this and I'm absolutely not alone about it,” wrote one outraged user. “Do you want us to switch supplier from Bahnhof to someone who does not do sexist advertising?” posted another.

In its defense, Bahnhof’s Head of Communications Anya Alenberg and CEO Jon Karlung claimed the post showed “that Bahnhof is an attractive employer.”

“Everyone who follows the internet and meme culture knows how the meme is used and interpreted. [Whether someone is a] man, woman or neutral gender is often irrelevant in this context,” the statement continued. “If we should be punished for anything, it's for using an old and tired meme.”

The company posted gender-neutral remakes of the meme the following day in order to highlight the humor and good intentions of the original post, but the damage was already done.

The ombudsman can only pass judgment, not impose sanctions. However, Stockholm City Council can remove any physical advertisements that are deemed sexist or degrading. At the time of publication, Banhof’s original offending meme remains on its social media accounts.

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