Distracted Boyfriend Meme Is Sexist and Objectifies Women, National Watchdog Rules

The popular "distracted boyfriend" meme has been deemed sexist by a national watchdog in Sweden, after a company used it in an advertisement.

The stock image, depicting a man lusting after another woman walking past, to the bewilderment of his partner standing right next to him, has become a viral template for myriad jokes in communities all over the internet. An internet service provider decided to mimic the trend and post a job ad in its spirit, but Sweden's Advertising Ombudsman (RO) quickly weighed in to brand the move sexist.

The RO called the use of the meme "gender-discriminatory," and offensive to women, The Local reported, highlighting that the post on the company's Facebook page had already attracted a huge amount of comments, some of which made the same critical point.

The post by internet provider Bahnhof followed the simple pattern of the meme, labelling all three people in the picture. It suggested that the leering boyfriend was "you," the woman that did not hold his attention was "your current workplace," while the woman he was captivated with was "Bahnhof."

The watchdog explained that the way the company had tried to showcase its appealing work environment had an implicit suggestion that, just like changing jobs, women could also be traded one for another, and for superficial reasons.

"It portrays women as interchangeable objects, and that only their appearance is interesting," the ombudsman concluded. The watchdog added that it was not accusing Bahnhof's services of sexism, but took aim at the meme, which objectifies women to suggest their value is in their looks and highlighted that only the man in the image represents a decision-making party, while the women have less agency.

"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 watchdig said.

Disloyal man with his girlfriend looking at another girl. The image has turned into a meme online known as "distracted boyfriend" and a Swedish watchdog has criticized its use as sexist. Getty Images

Commenters below the post suggested that this way of advertising, although seeking to cash in on a trend among young people, could push away women from applying, or "sensible guys" for that matter.

Bahnhof have since defended the decision to use the meme in order to "show that Bahnhof is an attractive employer and that those who have a slightly less good employer could be interested in us," according to a statement.

"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," read the statement, signed by head of communications Anya Alenberg and CEO Jon Karlung. "If we should be punished for anything, it's for using an old and tired meme."