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Annals of feminist policing: Swedish ombudsman rules that using famous “Distracted Boyfriend” meme in advertising is “gender-discriminatory”

October 1, 2018
'Distracted boyfriend meme' is sexist, rules Swedish advertising watchdog
Photo: AntonioGuillemF/Depositphotos
You might think the above photo is hilarious: Guy walking hand in hand with his girlfriend who can’t help casting an admiring glance at another young lady passing him on the sidewalk.
But in Sweden, That’s Not Funny.
Sweden’s self-regulatory advertising watchdog RO [Advertising Ombudsman] has now stated that the use of the meme was “gender-discriminatory”, both due to presenting women as “interchangeable” and “sex objects” and presenting “a stereotypical picture of men seeing women as interchangeable”.
The problem arose when a Bahnhof, a Swedish broadband provider, decided to use the widely circulating stock photo, known as the “Distracted Boyfriend meme,” in a humorous job advertisement that appeared on its Facebook and Instagram pages. The boyfriend got captioned as “you,” the girlfriend as “your current workplace,” and the female he’s admiring as “Bahnhof.”
Uh-oh. Sweden’s feminist police force went into nightstick mode:
Many of [the social-media commenters] criticized the alleged sexism of the image, and the advert was reported to Sweden’s Advertising Ombudsman, the body which regulates the advertising industry.
So–a crackdown!

“It portrays women as interchangeable objects, and that only their appearance is interesting,” wrote the ombudsman, which was unanimous in its decision. It added that there was no link between the services provided by Bahnhof and the objectified image of the women.

“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,” the judgment said.

Some of the reviewers involved in the decision also said that the advert presented “degrading” stereotypical views of both women and men. “It gives the impression that men might change female partners in the same way they change jobs. One notifier pointed out that Bahnhof may put off female applicants with the advertisement,” the judgment stated.

Poor Bahnhof tried to argue that it was only one of many entities to use the Distracted Boyfriend meme, which went viral in 2017, to make a variety of points that have little to do with sex and gender. But no go:

The ombudsman acknowledged the humorous intent of the picture and the fact it had been widely shared by other individuals and companies, but added that even well-known memes may not be mainstream.

As might be expected, the ruling from Swedish Advertising Ombudsman Elisabeth Trotzig has drawn some jeers outside Sweden. So Trotzig has been flooding the zone with self-exculpatory verbiage:

“It is entirely down to self-regulation by the industry. We can go a bit further than perhaps a court could have done. We can also say that it is the RO that sets the standard and the practice for the industry, and it can be slightly stricter in its assessments, precisely to ensure that trust in advertising is retained and to show that no further legislation is needed.”

“Just at the moment, investigating gender-discriminatory advertising is part of an assignment the Advertising Ombudsman has been given by the government, it’s the Department of Culture. It’s about the fact we [members of the advertising industry] have to show that we can take responsibility and follow regulation, also so that consumers can trust the industry….

“It may also be because Sweden is in the front line with tackling sexist advertising and has come a long way. Now it’s also happening in other countries, but the question of equality has been a big issue in Sweden for a very long time. Consumers don’t want to see sexism in adverts here,” she explained.

Trotzig’s ruling might not have the force of law in Sweden–yet. But in 2017 the City Council of Stockholm, the Swedish capital voted “to remove any advertising billboards deemed sexist or degrading from public spaces,” according to the online Swedish news service The Local.

So don’t try to use the Distracted Boyfriend meme in an ad in Stockholm.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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