LONDON — To some people it is just an innocent joke about a man who can’t keep his eyes on his own girlfriend.
To others, it is a comment on the interchangeability of women.
Sweden’s advertising ombudsman, an industry body, has gone with the latter interpretation of a widely shared meme, known as the “distracted boyfriend.”
In a decision published this week, the organization found that Bahnhof, an internet service provider, had broken its rules against gender discrimination by using the image of a man turning to ogle a passing woman as his girlfriend stares in disbelief.
The image had been widely shared by the time Bahnhof used it in a Facebook post. In 2017 it prompted one Twitter user to write up the back story of the three characters, and turned the models into celebrities of sorts.
The news of the ruling from the Reklamombudsmannen, or Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, even attracted a few memes of its own.
Bahnhof’s post, intended to promote job opportunities at the company, labeled the man as “you.” The woman who has stolen his attention represented opportunities at Bahnhof, while the girlfriend he is ignoring is labeled “your current workplace.”
The decision said that using a woman, depicted as a sex object, to represent job vacancies, while showing the man as an individual, was discriminatory. It also said the posts perpetuated a stereotype that women are interchangeable, like workplaces.
Discussions about how advertising portrays and targets women have grown as people have started to push back against denigrating images, especially those that have spread rapidly online. The advertising group took up Bahnhof’s post after it received 15 complaints contending that the image was objectifying and bore little relation to what was being promoted.
Britain last year announced a ban on advertising that promotes gender stereotypes, saying that they could “restrict the choices, aspiration and opportunities” of people who viewed the ads. Companies like Dove and Nivea have attracted criticism for their use of images online. Facebook has been accused of discriminating against women by allowing employers to exclude women from targeted recruitment campaigns.
The judgment reflects changing mores across Europe, as well as a shift for the advertising industry, said Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, a consumer psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, Britain.
“We have seen across Europe, in terms of consumer advertising, that these messages are not OK,” Ms. Jansson-Boyd said. “We’re more aware what is correct and what isn’t. The idea that you can swap a woman just like a job isn’t acceptable.”
But Bahnhof is unrepentant.
Jon Karlung, the chief executive, maintained that the decision — which carries no punishment or fine — was an overreaction. He pointed out that the meme had been shared with no sexist intent by the head of Bahnhof’s communications division, who happens to be a woman.
“We will fight fiercely to use memes in any way we feel,” Mr. Karlung said. “We will not be subject to censorship in any sense.”
“People will be annoyed by anything,” he added.
Still, the decision may make other companies consider more carefully how much benefit they get from using these images, according to Anja Lambrecht, a marketing professor at London Business School who focuses on digital marketing.
“We actually know from research that ads perceived as outrageous get more attention, but are not necessarily more persuasive,” Ms. Lambrecht explained.
Mr. Karlung said that was something that he had weighed: “This ad now has probably been the most published Swedish job ad ever. That was not our plan, and now we have got a lot of attention.”
“It can be good, it can be bad,” he added.
The ombudsman depends on self-regulation within the industry and said the ruling was intended to serve as a guide to other businesses.
Bahnhof noted in its statement, “If we are to be punished, it’s because of using an old and tired meme.”