“Distracted Boyfriend” Meme Called Sexist by Swedish Ad Authority


Whether or not you’re a fan of memes, they’re definitely an endless source of amusement – and controversy – for many people on the Internet.

Image via Bahnhof.

Some people even think they are part-and-parcel with the whole Internet experience yet others point to their misleading, controversial, or even outright offensive content as a source of annoyance. We in the photography world often observe that little to no attribution is given to the creators of these ubiquitous images, a perennial issue across the web for people who work in digital media, and that they represent some of the most glaring examples of outright theft on the Internet, garnering even the attention of the EU with their latest copyright efforts which would effectively kill memes on most social media platforms if allowed to come into effect.

In a first, Swedish ad regulation agency Reklamombudsmannen (RO) received complaints from people that the famous “distracted boyfriend” meme, using a stock photograph from Antonio Guillem called “Man Looking at Other Woman,” is sexist in nature. The meme, as anyone can imagine just from reading the title of the original photograph, often compares two different things with the boyfriend being tied to one but checking out the other option quite blatantly. The meme is used to push everything from political viewpoints to brands of optical equipment and is, if anything, one of the more anodyne examples of an Internet meme out there by any rational estimation.

The controversy erupted when Swedish Internet service provider Bahnhof used the meme in an attempt to advertise employment with the company according to The Guardian. The figures in the photo are appropriately called “you,” “your current job,” and “Bahnhof” following the formula established for this type of meme. Obviously your current job isn’t checking out a new position with Bahnhof, so that would leave the male figure as the obvious candidate for being “you” and some people took offense at this depiction of men and objectification of women. Of the two issues, the latter seemed to weigh most heavily in the RO’s ruling on the ad.

“The advertisement objectifies women…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. According to the committee, 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.”

Bahnhof for their part told local Swedish newspaper The Local: “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. … We are an internet company and are conversant in this, as are those who would look for a job with us, so we turned to that target group. If we should be punished for anything, it’s for using an old and tired meme.”

Though the agency does not have any power to sanction Bahnhof making the complaint largely an interrogative process to discuss the whys and why nots of this type of ad.

About Author

Kehl is our staff photography news writer since 2017 and has over a decade of experience in online media and publishing and you can get to know him better here and follow him on Insta.

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