For a brief period earlier this year, the “distracted boyfriend” meme – using a stock image of a man angering his partner by ogling another girl – was inescapable.
But its broad appeal does not appear to extend to Swedish regulators.
After it emerged, social media posters used the meme to communicate an array of examples of redirected affections, unfortunate distractions or switched loyalties, simply by transposing text onto the three characters in the same photo.
Now, Sweden’s advertising authority has ruled that a recruitment advertisement based on the meme – for internet company Bahnhof – is sexist.
Following the standard format of distracted boyfriend, the advert features a man labelled “you” turning over his shoulder to gaze lecherously at a woman labelled “Bahnhof”, while his girlfriend – tagged “your current workplace” – looks on angrily.
The point of the meme, Bahnhof said, was to communicate that the firm might be of interest to people with a “slightly less good” employer.
But advertising standards watchdog Reklamombudsmannen said it portrayed an image of women as interchangeable, suggesting that they were “mere sex objects”, in violation of the country’s advertising guidelines.
In a published ruling, the authority said the post “imparts a stereotypical picture of men looking at women as being interchangeable in the same way as a change of workplace, which is undervaluing”.
It added that judges came to a unanimous ruling on the ad, which was published on Facebook in April.
While the ruling argued that the image showed the man to be an individual while women functioned as mere objects, some judges thought it degraded both men and women by implying that men traded female partners like jobs.
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.”
Despite the ruling the advertisement remains on Facebook, as the Reklamombudsmannen does not have power to remove ads.
The advert on Bahnhof’s Facebook page is followed by a stream of comments debating the potentially misogynistic significance of the imagery.