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The board of the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman has ruled that using the well-known Distracted Boyfriend  meme (a stock image that became famous on social media) in advertising is gender discriminatory, and therefore should be banned.In 2018, the Swedish internet operator Bahnhof advertised new vacancies in its company on social media using this meme. The ad, published on its Facebook and Instagram accounts, said: “Looking for a new job? We are looking for sales staff, an operating engineer and a web designer” and was published with the famous image.

Several Swedish consumers filed complaints with the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman claiming that the ad objectified women and, therefore, was gender discriminatory. According to their claims, the meme depicts women as interchangeable objects and emphasizes the importance of their looks. Some claims also stated that the ad represents stereotyped gender roles for men and women: for example, that, even if a man is in a couple, he may look for other women if they are more physically attractive. An angry complainant even said that “Bahnhof may not be interested in attracting women candidates with this ad.”

Given the negative public reaction to the ad, Bahnof publicly apologized on Facebook. It argued that it had used the Distracted Boyfriend meme to make its vacancy ads more humorous, and that Bahnhof in no way discriminates in its recruiting practices, but rather focuses on candidates’ competence.

In its decision, the board started by stating that article 4 of the Marketing and Advertising Code of the International Chamber of Commerce (“ICC”) expressly prohibits gender discriminatory advertising. Although it assumed that the target for the ad would be familiar with the meme used as a comic image, it stated that humor, exaggeration, and irony can be a double-edged sword, as they can mitigate gender discriminatory views, but there is also the risk of reinforcing the negative connotations associated with the object of mockery.

The board found that, because the image focuses on the woman in red and the man’s appreciative reaction, the woman is presented as a sexual object. The purpose of the ad in itself is to recruit candidates, and the depiction of the woman in red as a sexual object is not related to the purpose of the ad. The board found that this view is reinforced by the fact that the women in the meme were allocated the roles of workplaces, while men, who are addressed by the ad, are depicted as individuals.

The board also found that the meme discriminates against men, as they are depicted in accordance with a derogatory male stereotype.

In light of this, the board found that the ad breached article 4 of the ICC Marketing and Advertising Code.

In Spain, article 10 of the Spanish Self-Regulation of Conduct in Advertising prohibits gender discriminatory advertising, emphasizing the protection of women’s image and advertising: “in particular, advertisements that may be derogatory or discriminatory for women will be avoided.” The Spanish General Advertising Act was amended by the Spanish Act on Comprehensive Protection Measures against Gender Violence, which classifies as unlawful any advertising that presents the image of women as associated with stereotyped behaviors.

Based on the above, the number of claims regarding sexist advertising may increase as social awareness on the practical importance of preventing the normalization of negative gender stereotypes through advertising grows.

Author: María Pascual

This post is also available in: Español



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