Sweden’s advertising watchdog ruled that an employer’s recruitment post on Facebook and Instagram discriminated against women. The offending content was the inclusion of the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
The Distracted Boyfriend meme, also known as Man Looking at Other Woman, is a stock photo of a man looking at a woman facing away from him as another woman looks on disapprovingly, with the implication that the man is acting disloyal. Bahnhof, a Swedish internet service provider, used the meme to depict the man as you, the girlfriend as “your current workplace” and the woman in the foreground as the company.
The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, known as Reklamombudsmannen (RO) in Swedish, ruled that Banhof’s use of this meme—which it states undervalues women and objectifies the woman in red—in a job ad violates Article 4 of the International Chamber of Commerce’s rules for advertising and marketing communications, which states that “marketing communications should respect human dignity and not incite or condone any form of discrimination or anti-social behaviour.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the post is still on Facebook. The Swedish ad watchdog is self-regulatory, meaning it can’t legally force the company to take down the posts. Bahnhof argued in a Facebook post that it used the meme to convey that it was a more attractive employer than your current workplace, and that the man and women in the meme weren’t to be taken literally in context. This is the typical use of the meme—not to use it as a vehicle to objectify women, but to illustrate other abstract ideas. The stock image has been used as a meme to depict political ideologies, staring at the sun, and, originally, Phil Collins’ musical taste.
But Sweden’s ombudsman found the use of the meme to be irrelevant—and in turn, discriminatory—when used in the context of recruiting people for jobs at a tech company. “The reviewers point out that the image itself is a well-known image on the internet, a so-called meme, and that it is intended to be humorous, but that does not yet motivate a company to use it in its marketing,” the agency wrote in its ruling. “There is no link between the objections of women and the Bahnhof or the service.” They also added:
“It gives the impression that men can change female partners in the same way as changing jobs. A notifier further points out that Bahnhof may not be interested in female applicants with this advertisement.”
It is important for employers to be held accountable for the nature of their recruitment ads, especially for the tech industry, which is known for excluding and discriminating against women. It’s also become increasingly urgent to regulate the recruitment ads spread on Facebook—the platform has repeatedly come under fire for enabling employers to exclude certain groups of people from seeing their job ads. Bahnhof’s case is nuanced, given meme culture gives way to interpretations beyond what’s seen in the image, but perhaps selecting a photo that can be construed to some as sexist for a job trying to cast a wide net is in poor taste. “If we’re going to be punished,” Bahnhof wrote, “it’s for using a way too old and tired meme.”