By now we all know that clean is sexy," that "Orange Plus tastes closer to fresh than beep-beep," and that "being first" is "the only thing." But what these and countless other TV commercials really tried to sell us in 1976 was not just a product; it was ourselves. That's what they were selling and that's what many of us were buying.

TV commercials didn't get much better or worse in form during 1976. They hammered away at old obssessions - usually the cleanliness of orfices - and they explored a few new ones. The Bicentennial, naturally enough, saw a population explosion of dauntlessly merry model Americans romping and parading through a polyglot paradise that made the world of Norman Rockwell look like Shantytown.

And commercial producers employed the relatively new-found "hidden camera," honest-injun, common person technique so ofteh that a day without Anita Bryant.

But the overriding theme was You-ism, or what writer Tom Wolfe called Me-sim. Commercial after commercial told us we were swell and worthy, that those days of self-denial brought on by economic hardships were over, that each of us us "special" and "unique" and deserves every comfort, luxury and appearance-improver that money or credit can buy. Pop went the humanism.

If you really love yourself, after all, you don't just meditate and go through EST and discover you're your own best friend and examine every last nook and crevice of your ever-fascinating personality. If you really love yourself, you buy yourself something.

And so they told us, in words and music and wholesome vignettes, that we're the top.

"Nothing's too good for daddy and me," sings a child. "Mom brings Del-Monte home."

"It's your face," intones a chorus.

"Let Shick love it."

"You - you're the one," chants an inescapable choir. "At McDonald's, we do it all for you."

At United Airlines. "You're the boss. At Burger King you can "have it your way." The individual is triumphing again! Everyone tells you to spare yourself nothing, while a new breed of pamper appliances like The Clean Machine and The Water Massage promise to turn hygiene into an ego-boosting sensual surprise party for yourself.

There's you. And theres Me. "Me and My Arrow, takin' the high road . . ." Or, "Me and My RC, Me and My RC." Why? "Cause what's good enough for me." And with that, the seductively agile young woman skateboards into the distance with a pizza in her hand.

As if to emphasize tht each of us is a potential star, sponsors increased their reliance on alleged real people, alledgedly caught off-guard by allegedly hidden cameras. Surely there are no real people now alive who don't know by this time that the more they like a product in a "hidden camera" interview, the likelier it is that they'll get on television.

This year, these participants had to work a little harder for their dollops of fame. Women were stopped in supermarkets and asked to do dishes or mop floors. Sometimes they'd be asked to do it twice. Others were sent home to shampoo their hair for two weeks, and a few willingly sold their clothes to strange men in laundromats and then stood watching as the clothes were ripped in half.

And with dependable frequency, the chorus of the Pepsi Generation would return to sing it again: "You be you and I'll be me . . . Feelin' free."

However the central message of commercials did or didn't vary, the ways in which it was delivered ranged as usual from delightful to infuriating.Looking at them aesthically, it's not easy to pick the best and worst commercials of any year. Sometimes the best in the viewer's eye are the worst in the sponsor's; they fail to move the product. Sometimes the most interesting are also the most audacious and, like Tina Turner's campy-naughty spot for Pearl Drops tooth polish, are yanked off the air soon after they get on. Others float in and out of one's consciousness and can't be fully recalled; you remember Howard the Dog, but you can't remember what he was selling (Kodak film processing).

But by almost any standard, the Burger King "America Loves Burgers" spot, with its 22 warming Minivignettes of life-loving, hamburger-gulping Americans, was one of the best commercials of 1976. Like many commercials, it was filmed in parts of the United States other than Los Angeles; that's why commercials reflect the physical diversity of the country much better than TV programs do.

The Burger King singers rejoice. "200 million people, no two are quite the same," and the commercial successfully transforms the eating of hamburgers into a quasi-religious ritual duty. Like many such cross-section spectaculars, the commercial essentially declares that each of us is different - but only in the ways in which we try to be like everybody else.

There seemed to be fewer truly entertaining commercials in 1976, but reliable Dr. Pepper staged lavish production numbers, Meow Mix reprised its harmonizing kitty-cats to fairly irresistible effect, and Lola Falana etched herself into our passive consciousness with her "Men Are Such Animals" dance for Faberage.

Increasingly, commercials spoffed commercials. Toyota's amusing "You asked for it, you got it" spots-satirize the presto-change editing that symbolizes the instant gratification promise of all advertising. The new L'Eggs commrecials, in which mommies are embarassed in front of their daughters because of baggy panty hose, can be seen as lampooning the humiliation is established nevertheless.

Among the most welcome spokes, men of the year were O.J. Simpson for Hertz, Dick Cavett for B'uick, and Uncle Miltie for Lum's. Encouraging combacks included Speedy Alka-Seltzer's resurrection - after a 16 year hiatus as living logo - and a born-again Mister Peanut, whose daffily dancing reappearance can surely be linked to recent political history.

It was also reliably reported that Mason Reese will soon return in a new series of commercials for Dunkin' Donuts. At last.

The least welcome spokesman were those who started getting on neerves long ago: the idotic Mr. Whipple (Charmin), the gabby minicurist Madge (Palmolive) the meddling, Mr. Goodwin (Crest), and the least funny clown in history, Ronald McDonald.

Commercials seemed to get a little sexier this year. People cavorting in showers showed more than shoulder. In addition to the increasingly rare commercial appearances of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, the most erotic spots were Catherine Deneuve's earthy grrr for Mercury and the Johnson's Baby Power ad in which a bathrobed wife sprinkled ta and in the bedroom, yet! Ooh, la-la!

Many ads celebrated The Good Life, the life we all so richly deserve, and sometimes it was put over in pleasureable if not convincing ways. IBM and Xerox institutional spots always give one the impression there is great hope for humanity, and the oil companies are awfully clever about making themselves ecological heros. Poshness and elegance are being extolled again; veteran boite balladeer Bobby Short sings a song for "Charli" perfume. Luxury car advertising is up, and some auto makers are telling us we should spare ourselves nothing in selecting an old-fashioned, big fat, conspicuous-consumption car.

Sometimes the good life gets pretty hilarious. "Now Comes Miller Time" was a cornball appeal to armchair machismo, depicting the typical beer-drinker as a beefy, globe-trotting combination of Evel Knievel and The Sea Hawk. A spource of even more rarefied howlers is the Inglenook campaign, in which life's great moments cannot be allowed to pass without a swig of winr.

The intended humor in commercials is often less humourous than the accidental. Flicking Bic's has long since ceased to be a giggle, and the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull was never anything but embarrassing. The talking Parkay Margarine series continues to demean portraying them as wildly risible nincompoops, and the contrived crunch-chips are anything but clever.

Appeals to fear, insecurity and self-doubt continue in commercial after commercial, but the pragmatic postivism of you-wonderful-you remains the dominant theme as we begin another year of Madison Avenue Madness. Claims and counterclaims for various products fly through the airwaves, with datril and Tylenol battling it out in one corner and Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola tussling in another. Fortunately we all know in our hearts that the wisest approach is to believe nobody's assertion of anything in a TV commercial except for the part about us. We must be great or they wouldn't be spending so much money to tell us so.