The CLIO is supposed to be the advertising world what the Oscar is to movies. But there were 27 statues given out at the Academy Awards this year, while there will have been 256 CLIOs distributed by the end of tonight's black-tie gala: And it took a week to do it.

"Someone figured out that awards are cheaper than raises," said Charles Mandel, former publisher of Madison Avenue Magazine and a seasoned veteran of the New York advertising world. "It has gotten to the point where you have one for the longest 30-second commercial."

"Having 250 CLIOs is like saying that there were 250 best pictures at the Academy Awards," added Edward McCabe a partner of Scali, McCabe and Sloves, a member of the Copywriter's Hall of Fame with over a dozen CLIOs stored somewhere in his basement, and the man who gave us Frank Perdue, the chicken man. "It's absurd."

At their best, television commercials are wonderful creations. Steve Karmen's "I Love New York" spot last year gave us a taste of Broadway, as the cast of "The King and I," "Dracula," "The Wiz," and "Annie" all sang one of the catchiest chord changes in recent history. To the surprise of no one, Karmen won a CLIO for Best Music With Lyrics - opening/tag category.

J. Walter Thompson pitted the Pittsburgh Steelers against Samsonite luggage last year in a contest where we saw monsters like Franco Harris pulverize a suitcase instead of an opposing player. This won the CLIO in the Best Personal Gift category.

Batton, Barton, Thurston and Osborne turned to a variation of the great film, "Twelve Angry Men," for its Right Guard ad involving a hung jury, half of which uses the stick and the other the spray.

"It means different things to different people," said Larry Dunst, president of Daniel and Charles Associates and another owner of many CLIOs. "It's a terrific thing for an art director or a copywriter. It's public recognition for anonymous people.

"It's also a giant help-wanted ad as well," he continued. "Ten years ago, a CLIO meant a $5,000 or $10,000 raise. That's not the case today, but it still means something. And I think, too, that it helps set some kind of standards in the business."

William Evans, who owns and runs the CLIO organization, defends the number of CLIOs by arguing that only through product categorization can the competition be conducted fairly.

"It's better to judge an ad in the framework of the product, because everyone in a paritcular category faces a similar marketing challenge," he said recently at the CLIO offices on East 60th Street.

"I think Evans' point is valid," Dunst said. "Otherwise, it would be a case of comparing apples and oranges. It's much more difficult to do an ad for an anti-perspirant than for some other services, for example."

There were 60 subdivisions in the U.S. television category alone last year such as Retail Auto, Soft Drinks, Pet Products, Office Equipment, Toys/Games, and Cereals.

This year, about 1,000 judges from 22 countries around the world reduced the 11,736 entrants to 256 winners, 100 in the international division and 156 in the national one. Some, like McCabe and Mandel, find the entire affair something of a joke. Others, like Robert Fiore, creative director of Kenyon and Eckhardt, the 16th-largest ad agency in the country, take the CLIOs seriously.

"The CLIOs are a very positive thing in our business," he said. "The choices have been excellent in the past. It's gratifying to win, and it's definitely something to shoot for."

Even critics acknowledge that a CLIO is an essential building block in a successful advertising career. McCabe did not turn any of them down when he won them. "It's still very important for young people in the business," he conceded.

"It's more important to TV production companies than it is to ad agencies," he continued. "CLIOs tend to be given more for the way things look than for the content. When an agency's looking for a production company to do its ads, it doesn't hurt to have a few on your shelf."

"There are those people who say that they don't care about the awards," said Dr. Joseph Smith, a psychologist who has been a successful advertising consultant in New York for over 25 years. "But all the while, deep down, there is something pleasing about having six of them behind your desk.

"Awards not only abound in our society, but compel an unseemly portion of our attention and an extraordinary amount of our energy," he told the audience at last year's EFFIE awards of the American Marketing Association. "Indeed, the intensity of our addiction suggests that awards may be no less essential to the human condition than sex."

Nowhere are Smith's remarks truer than in the advertising industry. First, there are the CLIOs, mutant descendants of Kleo, the muse from Greek mythology who, according to Evans, was "the proclaimer, glorifier, and celebrator of history and accomplishment." In 20th-century terms its role is "to honor excellence in advertising world wide." Evans calls the CLIO, "The cousin of the Oscar," and, "the Cadillac of the advertising awards."

Then, too, there are the EFFIEs, the Art Directors Club of New York awards, the one-show awards of the Copy Club of New York, the ADDYs of the American Advertising Federation, the ANDYs of the New York Advertising Club, to name but a few in thin country.

The SAWA (Screen Advertising World Assocation) festival in Cannes is considered by many to be the most distinguished international competition, although Evans would disagree.

By most accounts, the CLIOs are the most prestigious awards in the domestic traffic jam. The organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and it will pull out all the stops tonight at the Sheraton Center in New York for its awards in the Television and Cinema category, which is perhaps, the most glamorous.

The CLIOs started flowing on Monday, when awards for Packaging Design and Specialty Advertising Items were given at a luncheon. The Print CLIOs were given at another luncheon on Tuesday, and the Radio CLIOs went on Wednesday. Like some Oscar ceremonies, the CLIO finale tonight will include, for the first time, simultaneous galas in New York and Los Angeles. New York, though, will be the main attraction, at $45 a person.

"We outgrew Lincoln Center and we've just about outgrown the Sheraton," Evans said last week. "We should have close to 2,000 people coming Friday night."

CLIOs, obviously, are big business.Evans bought the CLIO organization from its founder, the late Wallace Ross, in 1971 after working for him for two years. Evans won't disclose what he paid for the business, but it is worth noting that it now has an annual budget of about $900,000, a full-time staff of 18, a new office in Los Angeles, and plans to open a European branch in the near future.

Evans generates his income from entry fees charged all of the hopefuls. Each pays $50 to enter a single ad and $75 for campaign, which consists of three spots. Every finalist must then ante up another $50. It is easy to see that with 11,736 entrants, the system translates into a lot of money.

"Look, the Oscars depend on membership," Evans said. "Everyone pays dues to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There are no agency memberships with us. Young and Rubicam doesn't give us $5,000 a year. The entry fees are our only means of support."

Those critical of the CLIOs view the large number of categories as a lucrative source of revenue for Evans. "The more you have, the more money you make," McCabe said.

"Any award that you have to pay cash to enter is a little screwy as far as I'm concerned," Mandel added."Besides, a lot of interesting work comes out of small agencies that can't keep putting up a lot of money to enter all of these things."

Even the well-heeled agencies feel the financial strain of entering a body of their work in the myriad contests. "I act as editor to keep the numbers down for economic reasons," Fiore explained. "We try to pick the prestigious shows. The CLIO is one of several that we enter. I think that we have between 25 and 30 in the Print and Television categories this year."

The situation was much worse in the late '60s and early '70s, so bad in fact that a number of agencies simply stopped entering.

"CLIO took the brunt of it," Evans said. "The big ones were entering 50 or 60 spots in the different awards. A lot of them like J. Walter Thompson said, wait, this has gotten totally out of hand. They were right."

"I sent them all a letter after I took over saying, 'I agree with you,'" he continue. "'Please get a creative review committee within your agencies to limit the entrants. Don't send me 100. But if you're going to choose one award to enter, choose the Cadillac of the industry.'"

The ground rules of the CLIO competition are as complicated as they are controversial. The judges, about 1,000 of them, are chosen by Evans as well as the coordinators to review all of the work entered. During the six-week preliminaries, between the middle of February and the end of March, the field is reduced about 80 percent.

"Our screening room is used straight from 9 in the morning until 7:30 at night by the judges," Evans explained.

Once the awards are made each June, Evans packages the show and sends it abroad. Sometimes he goes himself and other times he will send a representative. A reel of all of the winners is shown during the summer and fall to the advertising communities in Europe, Australia, Japan, and South America. It's effective promotion for CLIO.

CLIOs will continue to draw fire for their fertility. The odds are also good that they will continue to proliferate. Evans is already planning to dismember the retail section in the Print category to create a separate subdivision for personal services.

"I still think that there ought to only be a few - say one for the most memorable television commercial of the year with a positive reaction and another for the one with the most negative one," Mandel concluded. "That way, 'Squeeze the Charmin' could win something."

"Some guy writes toilet paper ad copy all day," Smith said recently. "He comes home and his kids say, 'Daddy, what did you do today?' He's afflicted with the feeling that he's not doing something terribly important, and this statuette will provide some surrogate recognition." CAPTION: Illustration, CLIO; Picture, William Evans, with a few of the 256 CLIOs awarded this year; by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post