Jane Bradley: I’ve had it up to here with memes

The 'distracted boyfriend' meme
The 'distracted boyfriend' meme
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We are all well acquainted with the sexist world of advertising – especially those of us who were avid watchers of Mad Men.

The commercials of the 1950s and 60s, which blatantly and unapologetically told us that women should be in the kitchen, that we were too weak to open a bottle of ketchup and that cars were a man’s domain, are well documented.

Instead, as we well know, our place was looking pretty at home, waiting for our husbands to get in so we could hand them their warmed slippers and present them with a nice, homecooked dinner and a cigar. These ads are accepted as a thing of times gone by and are even quite admired these days, in a kitsch, 
nostalgic, “aren’t we glad that’s over” kind of a way.

Yet, it turns out that it isn’t, not really. Even in the 2000s, blatantly sexist advertising continued, with chocolate bar Yorkie’s “It’s not for girls” slogan, although even that was stamped out the best part of a decade ago.

This week, the Swedish advertising
 authority decided to crack down on an advert based on a widely-shared internet meme, which it says is “undervaluing” and makes women appear “interchangeable”.

I feel marginally bad for the creators of this ad, although they probably need to go back to advertising school, or at least do some work experience at the Leith Agency. It was a dud, yes, but I feel it doesn’t deserve to be singled out as any more offensive than many others.

In case you haven’t seen the so-called “distracted boyfriend” meme, it is a fairly dull photo. A generic-
looking chap, walking with his generic-looking girlfriend, turns to ogle another generic-looking woman walking past. How it became a thing, I’m not quite sure, but it did.

Taken by photographer Antonio Guillem in 2015 and filed with a stock photo service under the description “Disloyal man with his girlfriend looking at another girl”, it was picked up somewhere on the internet and reposted on Instagram with the phrase “Tag that friend who falls in love every month”.

Hundreds of spin-off memes resulted, from political comments about capitalism and socialism to warnings about dangers of looking at the solar eclipse.

If it were up to me, memes wouldn’t exist anyway. They’re generally not that funny and are the 21st century equivalent of Beavis and Butthead guffawing behind their hands. But it’s not up to me – nor, I know, does almost anyone else agree. A picture taken at an Edinburgh nightclub earlier this week of a man shouting into a bored-looking girl’s ear has gone viral, with a variety of different oh-so-hilarious captions and dozens of resulting “news” stories. Go figure.

The offending, Swedish incarnation of this infamous meme, a recruitment ad for Stockholm-based recruitment company Bahn-hof, shows “distracted boyfriend” (in this version, labelled as “You”) turning away from the woman labelled “Your current workplace” to look at “Bahnhof”. It’s not even a great ad, with Bahnhof feeling it necessary to explain that the point was to communicate that the firm “might” be of interest to people with a “slightly less good” employer.

The ruling by Swedish advertising watchdog Reklamombudsmannen, however, insisted it “imparts a stereotypical picture of men looking at women as being interchangeable in the same way as a change of workplace, which is undervaluing”.

In a statement, Bahnhof argued that the gender of the person representing the potential career options was irrelevant. “Everyone who follows the internet and meme culture knows how the meme is used and interpreted,” it said. “We have explained our purpose and meme culture to [the] ombudsman, but they have chosen to interpret the post in a different way.”

I have to say, when I first saw this meme at all, I thought it seemed a bit 1990s. Out of date, staged and unneccessary. Sexist, yes, a little,
but to be fair, no more so than adverts
 for Diet Coke which for decades involved some form of a hot man taking off his shirt while being ogled by a group of women. Admittedly, that was this year replaced by a bland ad claiming that “life is too short” (subtext, “so just go ahead and drink an aspartame-laden beverage”), but it wasn’t that long ago.

However, what was most interesting to me was that the Reklamombusmannen said that it had been able to make the ruling because the meme had been used as an advert – as what is used in a meme does not come under its jurisdiction.

Advertising ombudsman Elisabeth Trotzig said: “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. In this context, [the Reklamombudsmannen jury] found that it was gender-discriminatory.”

I get the feeling that the Swedish
ombudsman and I would get on. The ad is sexist, but there are far worse things circulating in the advertising world – I think they just had it in for that meme.

Since they saw the irritating “distracted boyfriend” way back in 2015, they had probably been waiting for a chance to pounce on it, to do something – anything – to get it removed from our internet. Although they don’t have the power to get its annoying presence out of our lives completely, they did what they could. And I laud them for that.