So, what's your complaint?

Waste of money; Sexual deviant; Bully; Drug pusher; Hamster molester

It was Sooty and Sweep's turn to feel the lash of public disapproval this week. The anarchic glove-puppets were criticised by the Independent Television Commission for excessive sniffing on screen - though it was the scent of aromatherapy oils rather than solvents or Bolivian dandruff that drifted up their cute little nostrils. "It sounds silly," an ITC spokeswoman said defensively, in the wake of much sarcastic comment in the media. "But if you had seen them splashing the oils about and sniffing and giggling and falling over... These oils can be dangerous."

Part of the Commission's job is to monitor advertisements and programmes shown on independent television; in this case, they said, it was their duty to protect children from viewing "dangerous behaviour which could be easily imitated". But they didn't themselves upbraid the dusky bears for misbehaving. They were forced to step in after they received 11 complaints from the public (including two worried aromatherapists).

To libertarians this little episode may seem a fine example of what a mollycoddled nation we have become, presided over by an overbearing nanny state. But it raises the question of what exercises the great British public sufficiently these days to lobby the ITC and other advertising and broadcasting regulators?

Sex, for example, no longer winds us up as it used to. Ah, the happy days of the Sixties, when every Wednesday Play on BBC1 was greeted with shrieks of moral outrage, every modest sexual overture threw the national Viewers and Listeners' Association into a loop, and every glimpse of nipple in the films of Ken Russell was accompanied by groans that suggested the fabric of British society now resembled the mattress of a Port Said brothel.

People complained about sex in books (Lady Chatterley, Portnoy), in the theatre (O Calcutta!, Hair), in the movies (Women in Love, Flesh) and in public life: they complained about the very existence of Mandy Rice- Davies, the shocking bad taste of John Profumo, the naked rear elevations of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

These days, by contrast, the ITC has had 100 complaints about C4's sexually- explicit gay drama, Queer as Folk. That there should be complaints is hardly surprising, since the series features more men (including a 15- year-old) on their knees than the average Muslim prayer-day; but 100 complaints is chicken-feed when compared to the record 1,554 complaints that flooded into the ITC's mailbox in protest at the televising of Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ in 1995. The public merely whimpered at Queer as Folk. Ten years ago it would have roared. And significantly, many of the complaints came not from people who object to gay sex on telly but from gays who rejected the portrayal of homosexuals as heartless flesh- bandits.

The old shock-horror response to graphic smut is still vestigially with us, but now complaints tend to occur when the sexual "offensive" pops up in an unexpected place, like the lesbian kiss in Emmerdale (86 complaints at the ITC) and the incest storyline in Brookside (54 complaints - though heaven knows who could still be surprised by a Brookside story line).

The majority of sex-related complaints these days are very PC. According to the Advertising Standards Authority, the guardian of standards in press and poster advertising, people are increasingly offended by the portrayal of women - and men - as sex objects. A half-naked woman draped over a car used to shock because she was half-naked; then because she was being casually exploited. Now a half-naked male swigging Diet Coke and being ogled by stenographers in horn-rim specs is just as likely to upset gender fascists. Violence and bad language in advertisements are less likely to upset us these days, say the ITC, although French Connection's enormous "fcuk" hoardings showing a spiky female heel about to penetrate a male bottom represent the edge of the acceptable (and show that complainers about such things have no sense of humour). And when it comes to complaints about taste and decency, animals and religion occupy the high ground of controversy that was once the province of nudity and Alf Garnett.

Take Kevin the hamster, whose "death" in the service of Levi jeans recently prompted 519 complaints to the ITC. In the Levi commercial, Kevin was shown running round his exercise-wheel in rude and happy health. But then the wheel broke, Kevin died of boredom - and at the advert's bleak finale, a dead hamster (thankfully a rodent-double) was being prodded with a pencil.

"What it had to do with jeans, I'm not sure," confesses a baffled ITC spokeswoman. "But parents complained that children were upset because they had had hamsters that died, or might die some day. We rarely pull an advert, but the Levi ad was shifted to after 9pm."

The ASA's most complained-about advert also involved animals, namely a cow on a poster which reflected, via a thought-bubble, that if becoming a burger was all there was to look forward to it was best to be washed down with Irn Bru. An astonishing 589 people complained about the ruminative bovine. "Some were animal lovers, others vegetarians," recalls an ASA spokesman. "Hindus also complained on the grounds that the cow was sacred." The ASA did not uphold the complaint. They did not think the advert caused widespread offence.

The eating of a human placenta on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV Dinners programme last year, in which the wall of a human womb was expertly converted into a smooth pate, was a borderline case for the public-decency watchdogs. You couldn't complain that it was exploiting animals, nor that it was an unwarranted invasion of the human body. It didn't even look particularly gross. The Broadcasting Standards Commission censured the programme saying that, despite warnings, many people had been taken by surprise (perhaps they misread the recipe as polenta), but the ITC found nothing to criticise.

There's a growing tendency for pressure groups to orchestrate their members to complain to the ITC and other bodies en masse, and each time they do, our perception of what exactly concerns "the public" gets distorted. But sometimes you can find unexpected little sensitivities among more predictable issues. Consider the tongue-in-cheek IKEA advert, for instance, in which an employee was made redundant so that his company could buy new furniture. A stream of indignant letters followed. "Complainers did not think that redundancy was a subject for humour," says the woman from the ITC. And the company pulled the advert. At the top of the Commission's complaints chart, alongside Jesus Christ and Kevin the hamster, sits Against Nature - a controversial appraisal of the environmental lobby, shown on C4 last year (151 complaints) and Hell's Angel, an unflattering portrayal of Mother Teresa (134 complaints). In both cases, the complaints exemplified another modern trend: where once we might have been shocked by heresy or have deprecated the despoliation of the rainforests, we now complain about unfairness and partiality, lack of balance, under-representation of a point of view, heartlessness. We have become unshockable, to a degree, by scenes of sexual coupling, of violence, of war and assassination, of flayed flesh and the use of the c-word. We may blink at Sex and the City or The Lakes, but soon accept them as modern comedy or "strong" drama. Instead of complaining about the things that upset our parents' generation, we are newly attuned to questions of balance, more concerned about the sensitivities of others.

We complain about different things. Finding fault has been a national pastime with the British people for at least a thousand years, since they complained about the unpreparedness of their king, Ethelred, back in the year 1000. In the Nineties, certain things have achieved an iconic status as Complaint Fodder. All taxi drivers and schoolchildren now seem required to disparage the Millennium Dome as a "waste of money". It's not that it looks funny or is difficult to get to; it's that it represents an "unfair" use of taxpayers' money and lottery funds. It's unfair to the poor, the hospitalised, the needy....

Maybe it has become harder to complain. Take restaurants, for instance. Once we objected to a fly in the vichyssoise and expected it to be dealt with unquestioningly. Now, restaurants have raised their game so stratospherically you're more likely to find the proprietor complaining about you - your dull impatience at waiting an hour for the pan-fried John Dory, your failure to appreciate the unearthly lightness of the cappuccino de moule. Try complaining today about finding a hair in the tagine of pork at a fashionable restaurant and they may well say, "It's probably one of yours" and complain about how you've ruined the dish with your galloping alopecia.

Once we could demand to see the manager. Now we watch restaurateurs on TV, at a respectful distance, and complain about having to watch Gordon Ramsay chewing the face off his pastry chef. It's just not good enough.

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