‘Why we ruled that a Distracted Boyfriend meme advert was sexist’

A judgment from the Swedish advertising watchdog that an advert using a popular internet meme – Distracted Boyfriend – was sexist has prompted headlines around the world, with many arguing the judgment is a failure to understand online culture. The Local spoke to Sweden's Advertising Ombudsman to find out more about exactly how the decision was made and why.

'Why we ruled that a Distracted Boyfriend meme advert was sexist'
It was the advert and not the meme itself (pictured above) that the watchdog found sexist. Photo: AntonioGuillemF/Depositphotos

The first thing that Sweden's Advertising Ombudsman (RO) Elisabeth Trotzig wanted to stress was that “RO makes judgments on adverts, not memes”.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story so far, Stockholm-based internet service provider Bahnhof shared the meme, officially titled 'Disloyal man walking with his girlfriend and looking amazed at another seductive girl' as part of a recruitment advert. It labelled the boyfriend “you”, the girlfriend “your current workplace” and the second girl “Bahnhof”, prompting hundreds of accusations of sexism from commenters on Facebook and Instagram.

A total of 15 private individuals reported the advert to RO, and the watchdog's jury came to a unanimous decision that it was “gender-discriminatory”. Not only were women presented as “interchangeable sex objects”, the RO judgment claimed, with some of its members arguing that the ad also showed a stereotypical and “degrading” image of men.

The RO does not have the power to impose sanctions or call for the removal of the advert, but Trotzig explained: “It is the industry's body for reviewing and checking advertisements, to check they adhere to the ICC Code.”

“We don't have any legislation at all on sexist advertising,” stressed Trotzig, a trained lawyer and marketer who became the country's first Advertising Ombudsman ten years ago – and stated her ambition to crack down on sexist advertising at the time.

“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.”

The decision was made by the six members of the RO jury, which includes representatives from the advertising industry, academia, and consumer organizations, as well as the chairperson. Trotzig explained that their role was to examine the rules of the International Chamber of Commerce, and in this case article four, applying to gender discrimination.

The two criteria for ruling an advert to be gender-discriminatory are men or women being presented in an “objectifying” way or in “stereotypical gender roles”. 

One of the main criticisms from the company behind the advert and many online commenters was that the judgment failed to take into account the context of meme culture. In memes, Bahnhof argued that “gender is usually irrelevant in this context”.

In its judgment, the RO acknowledged that humour and exaggeration could serve to “mitigate gender-discriminatory impressions”, but also noted that “there is a risk that what you want to ironize or make fun of is instead reinforced”.

When asked by The Local if this was the first decision made by the RO relating to meme culture, Trotzig replied: “I can't really answer that. But what the jury has been looking at is how the image was used in the advert; it's the advert that's been judged, not the meme in itself.  If someone takes an artwork and uses it as an illustration for an advert, the judgment is about the advert and not the artwork. It was an overall assessment that the jury made, on the image and text and how they were used in an advert. In this context, they found that it was gender-discriminatory. “

As for whether she was surprised by the huge global reaction, she said that the reports in newspapers from countries all over the globe were “obviously” unexpected. Trotzig believes the story became news fodder partly because of a lack of clarity that the advert and not the meme was the subject of the decision, and partly because of Sweden's progressive culture in terms of gender equality.

“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.

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