It’s been used to dissect trends in popular culture, wade into political disputes and comment on the fickle nature of human relationships, but the popular “distracted boyfriend” meme is sexist, the Swedish advertising standards watchdog has said.
It found that the widely shared image depicts a woman as a “sex object” and stereotypes men, violating regulations on discrimination in advertisements.
The meme places text over a stock photograph of a man looking at a passing woman, to the shock of his girlfriend.
It spread across social media in 2017, becoming one of the year’s most popular online memes and being used by celebrities including Dolly Parton.
But its use by Swedish internet provider Bahnhof in a Facebook and Instagram post advertising job vacancies was reported to the watchdog after receiving complaints online.
The post suggested people would be enticed by Bahnhof, favoring it over their current place of work.
“The committee finds that the woman in red, who is in focus in the image, through the man’s appreciative reaction is presented as a sex object,” the advertising ombudsman Reklamombudsmannen said in its ruling.
It added that the depiction of the woman as a sex object is “unrelated to the advertisement.”
And it also deemed the image “devaluing” to men, ruling that “the presentation of the man – through the way he, while walking with his girlfriend – turns around looking at another woman – conveys a stereotypical picture of men looking at women as being interchangeable in the same way as a change of workplace.”
The committee’s president and its seven other members unanimously agreed on the ruling, which was made after 15 private individuals raised complaints.
But while the organization can deem whether an advertisement is discriminatory, it cannot impose sanctions or force the company to remove its post.
The Facebook post, which is still live, received over 900 comments from people both criticizing and defending the ad.
The heated reaction caused Bahnhof to interject. “We like open discussions online,” the company wrote, “But stick to the point! Personal attacks and death threats do not belong here and lead nowhere.”
“We women deserve to have a good life, have our bodies left alone and considered fully-fledged people. That is not the effect of such a picture,” one complainant said after the post was published in April, according to Swedish outlet Expressen.
The original stock photo, which provided the basis for the meme, was taken by photographer Antonio Guillem.
Its full title is “Disloyal man walking with his girlfriend and looking amazed at another seductive girl.”