ARE YOU a human being? Male? Female? Do your lungs take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide?

If so, YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED to learn about all those FABULOUS SWEEPSTAKES in which YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON MILLIONS UPON BILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

Of course, you could throw this newspaper away. But if you've been wondering why so many important companies want to MAKE YOU A WINNER, don't ignore this UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY.

"If you want to understand our business," says sweepstakes wizard Jeffrey Feinman, "go to Spain. People don't have money for food, but they always have money for sweepstakes."

On home shores, too, the climate has been rather balmy of late for the captains of the sweepstakes industry. Call it a recession or call it a depression, it suits them just fine. "When times get bad," Feinman explains, "sweepstakes get good."

Feinman's firm, Ventura Associates, has surveyed people whose names were drawn from sweepstakes entrants, and gotten "universal agreement that they never waste their time entering a sweepstakes." Just as "no one watches 'Laverne and Shirley' and no one reads The National Enquirer," he cheerfully observes, "no one ever enters a sweepstakes."

Nevertheless, the record will show that contest and sweepstakes sponsors spent an estimated $170 million last year on prizes, plus untold millions on advertising, postage and printing. Between 1979 and 1982, according to the Promotion Marketing Association of America, the number of contests and sweepstakes grew by more than 27 percent.

Some people may regard the whole business as inherently shady. But not the Joan Conboys of this heady world. Over her 30-year career as perhaps the nation's most prolific enterer of sweepstakes and contests, Conboy has won "every appliance known to man," including washers, dryers and half a dozen TV sets. "And radios? Forget it, I've lost count."

In one year, 1978, she flew to London and Los Angeles, courtesy of Scotch Tape and Gillette razors, respectively. "I was really on a roll that year," she says modestly. She has had her choice of $5,000 or a 1929 Model T. And on two separate occasions she has won five-minute, all-you-can-grab supermarket shopping sprees. "I learned after my first one that you wear gloves," she reports, "because otherwise you break your fingernails, and you get numb in the frozen food section."

True, some prizes have been less exhilarating than others. There was the year's subscription to Surfing Magazine that started coming in January, a slack month for surfing in far-upstate New York, where the Conboy family resides. There have been T-shirts enough to costume the collected plays of Tennessee Williams (all dutifully reported to the Internal Revenue Service, because "when you stop to think about it, you don't want to be audited for a T-shirt").

But when Gillette gave her an all-expenses-paid trip to the 1978 World Series and she found out the plane would get her to L.A. only 45 minutes before game-time, the company graciously agreed to fly her in a day ahead and pick up the tab for the extra night at the hotel. "I've never been treated anything but royally by anybody I've won a prize from," she says.

She is also convinced that the great majority of sweepstakes "are strictly legitimate. The big companies have too much to lose to try any hanky-panky."

Shunned as legally and morally dubious just a few decades ago, sweepstakes have now become such a mainstay of American marketing that not even the Whale Protection Fund can resist the tide. "Help Save the Whales and You Could Win the Trip of a Lifetime," the fund is advising potential donors these days. The Salesian Fathers, meanwhile, are telling a harrowing tale about thousands of people living in conditions of "virtual slavery" in the stone quarries of India, "completely cut off from the rest of the world," while in the very same communique' you are invited to weigh your chances of winning a brand new Chevrolet Citation.

And the National Foundation for Cancer Research is sending out appeals highlighting the $5,000 in gold bricks that could be yours if you hit the cancer jackpot. A benign bit of growth indeed.

"I don't think they would have thought of doing this 10 or 20 years ago," says Leonard Bierman, executive vice president of the agency handling the cancer fund sweepstakes. In its cover letter, the foundation itself sounds a tad defensive, observing that "when a cancer research organization runs a sweepstakes, you can be sure of one thing: it needs money . . ."

"What's happened is the general acceptance of people wanting to take a chance and gamble and win something," says Tom Conlon, another top sweepstakes executive. "In the last 10 years, we've seen the rise of lotteries in 16 states, and Atlantic City has permitted gambling. People like to gamble. They like to take a chance, and I think marketers have begun to realize this."

The charities have joined the fold because, says Feinman, "it's harder to raise money than it used to be. People who wouldn't talk to us five years ago come to us now and say they're losing money on every piece of mail . . . Today the promotion business is very sophisticated. An advertiser knows that he can increase coupon redemption by up to 30 percent by putting a sweepstakes overlay on it. A direct mailer knows that he can increase response. Where it was simply a device 10 years ago, now it's a sophisticated marketing tool."

And while the casual observer might question the ultimate economic utility of all this activity, the casual observer would be mistaken, as he so often is. Sweepstakes are a "very efficient" way of selling, says Feinman. "A lot of consumers don't understand. They'll say, 'How can this company afford to give away $100,000 on prizes. Well, if the company is spending a million dollars on advertising and it's going to make the advertising twice as effective, $100,000 is nothing."

Of course, the charities are bit players in this game. The big shots are outfits like American Family Publishers and the Publishers Clearing House, whose TV commercials don't even mention the companies' stock in trade (magazine subscriptions), but merely alert viewers to get ready for the arrival of their sweepstakes announcements in the mail.

The latest American Family Publishers sweepstakes promises 70,000 "guaranteed" prizes, compared with the paltry 350 the whale people are offering. In a deeply personal letter ("which has been delivered . . . by the hand of YOUR ARLINGTON POSTMAN"), American Family president Fred C. Shotwell proudly announces that "this is the first time in history that a single prize of ONE MILLION DOLLARS is guaranteed to be awarded to one person in a by-mail sweepstakes."

"Today may be the second most exciting day of your life," Shotwell writes. "The Personal Prize Claim Number B5Z22593 has been registered solely and exclusively in your name. Nobody else has this number. And if your number is the Grand Prize Winner and you return it in time, I'll be calling you person-to-person to say:

" 'CONGRATULATIONS, MRS. ---, YOU WILL RECEIVE AT LEAST ONE MILLION DOLLARS AND MAYBE MUCH MORE!'

"And if I have the pleasure of making that phone call to you, unless I'm badly mistaken, that will be the most exciting day of your life."

Having thus parceled out the first and second most exciting days of your life, Shotwell's letter goes on to reproduce your hypothetical bank balance as the checks come in for $50,000 a year over the next 30 years, showing how, "if you left only half of each year's $50,000,00 in your account . . . you could even make periodic withdrawals of $50,000 and even $100,000 for expenses and your fortune could still build to over two million dollars."

This mixture of vicarious daydreaming and helpful financial advice typifies not only the Shotwell prose style but the new language of sweepspeak in general. Another attention-getting device is the relentless computerized insertion of your hometown, your street and your name in letters so big most people would be ashamed to put them on a tombstone. ("IMAGINE! $2,004,399 IN THE JONES BANK ACCOUNT . . .") The word "guaranteed" is yet another favorite, as in "You are the GUARANTEED WINNER of up to $25,000.00 EXTRA if you are the Early Entry Winner and you beat the deadline on the Gold Seal."

American Family Publishers may be offering, for the moment, the biggest single prize. But for sheer verbosity and complexity, it would be hard to beat the United States Purchasing Exchange's combined "Sky's the Limit" and "Cash Bonus" sweepstakes. Both employ black spots you are asked to wipe "gently with moist tissue or wet fingertip" in order to find out not whether you have won or lost, but merely what you would win if you won.

In the "Sky's the Limit" sweepstakes, this is a two-stage process: first you identify a personal "lucky symbol," then you wipe off a second spot adjacent to that symbol and uncover the news that if you win, you will win all these prizes: the RCA color TV, the Chevy Cavalier, $5,000 cash, the Invicta luggage set, the RCA video disc system, the trip to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, the Whirlpool refrigerator/freezer, the Moulinex air convection oven, the Mattel Intellivision master component, the Benchmark clock, and the Vitamaster steam-sauna bath.

In all, the United States Purchasing Exchange's envelope contains 10 different insertions, including an inspiring list of 20 names--yours at the top--with the assurance that "15 of 20 persons shown below are actual sweepstakes winners." But lest anyone leap to the conclusion that they have a 75 percent chance of pocketing big money, the fine print below explains: "People do win Sweepstakes . . . people just like you! That's why we placed your name among a number of previous Sweepstakes winners . . ."

The law, where sweepstakes are concerned, is a murky and malleable thing. Essentially, it prohibits what Frank Dierson, general counsel to the Promotion Marketing Association of America, calls the "unholy triumvirate of prize, chance and consideration," which together define a lottery. (Only a church or a state can conduct a lottery.) This is why you must be allowed to enter without a purchase, and why even the sweepstakes offerings that come inside package boxes must be made available by other means.

Nevertheless, says Feinman, "People always say to us, 'Aren't your clients upset when someone wins who didn't buy the product?' Most of the time the client couldn't care less. If American Family Publishing is spending a million dollars, the last thing they're interested in is whether Harry Jones spent $6.95 to buy a magazine ."

Of course, no sponsor will mind if a few entrants persuade themselves otherwise and go ahead and buy a product that wouldn't have appealed to them on its independent merits. And the law doesn't say it has to be easy to enter without a purchase. So long as it is possible, and so long as a complete reading of the material makes that clear, the sponsor is "covered legally," to quote Noble Jones, the Federal Trade Commission's resident expert on contests and sweepstakes.

There were no sweepstakes--no legal ones, anyway--back in the hard times of 1937, when Niles Eggleston got his start. "They were all skill contests--limericks and jingles and naming contests," recalls Eggleston, the editor/publisher of the Contest/Sweepstakes Bulletin in Milford, N.Y. "There was some hesitation as to whether or not sweepstakes were legal under postal law up until the late '50s or early '60s," he says. But then merchandisers threw caution to the winds. "Sweepstakes are much easier to judge" than contests, Eggleston explains. "In fact, there's no judging to them. When the companies found that they could run sweepstakes, they pretty much gave up on contests."

Another factor, according to Joan Conboy, is that "there were a few people who, let's face it, were very talented, and you had a small cadre that was winning all the prizes."

In the '60s, the FTC clamped down on alleged misrepresentation in supermarket and gas station sweepstakes. The result was a federal regulation specifically applicable to supermarkets and gas stations, and generally treated as a model code for all sweepstakes. Among other things, it requires a clear statement of odds. Hence the National Pen Corporation of San Diego must disclose that it will be giving away just one pair of "His and Hers Sports Cars" and 250,000 "metal fun machine pens."

The odds can be astronomical. McDonald's may be responsible for the longest shot of any sweepstakes to date: 441,138,000 to 1 against winning a grand prize of $500,000. But Fred Drago, a 52-year-old Mobile, Ala., policeman, bucked the odds and plans to "get a mobile home and do some traveling" as soon as he has served out the remaining year he needs to qualify for a pension.

In 1975, the FTC accused Reader's Digest of misleading the public with simulated checks. "We held that nobody was confused, that nobody complained, and we sent out millions of these things," recalls Charles Pintchman, deputy director of corporate affairs. Just the same, after exhausting all appeals, the Digest paid one of the bigger corporate fines in history, $1.75 million, and agreed to end the practice. But other firms continue to send out mock checks. And when the FTC or the Postal Service does raise questions about an offering, "they are quite courteous and frequently will close the matter on the basis of an advertiser's willingness" to make changes, according to Dierson.

Feinman says the reason for today's friendly relations between government and the sweepstakes business is that everything is now so straightforward and aboveboard. "In 1983 America," says Feinman (whose company thought up that "15 of 20 names shown below are actual sweepstakes winners" list), "if you think you can still cheat the public, then you just don't understand what's been going on with Ralph Nader and the educated consumer."

There is wide agreement, however, that certain land and condominium sales firms have failed to take part in the general upgrading of standards. Jones tells of one offering "where you have to drive like 200 miles to find out what prize you've won," and instead of the Lincoln Continental or the color TV, it turns out to be a "grandfather clock made of cardboard" or "gold ingots the size of a baby's fingernail."

Reader's Digest, Publishers Clearing House and several other major companies administer their own sweepstakes. But most farm out the organizing and the judging to a small coterie of promotion firms. Ventura Associates, D.L. Blair and Marden Kane are three of the biggest. Indeed, according to their executives, each of them is the biggest. "I would like to think we're number one," says Bierman of Marden-Kane. "We're the largest in the country," says Conlon of D.L. Blair. And Feinman, a former D.L. Blair official who split away to form his own firm, says Ventura is "absolutely" number one. "But I am sure we'll each tell you we're the largest," he adds helpfully. "That's one of the great things about privately owned businesses."

Years of specialization have taught the sweepstakes kingpins certain profound tactical lessons. Among them:

"The most popular prizes are cash, cash and cash," as Pintchman puts it.

"When we offer a prize of a trip anywhere in the world, we consistently see people pick a destination less than 500 miles from home," adds Feinman. "Winning a trip to Hong Kong might be a very threatening situation for many people," he says. "Or 15 years ago the typical prize might have been 'Win a date with Troy Donahue,' but there's nothing that's more likely to frighten a teen-ager . . ."

It pays to use "involvement devices" rather than just have the entrant put a card in the mail. To enter one sweepstakes with a Mercedes as its top prize, the contestant had to tear off a simulated key from one page of the offering and insert it into a simulated dashboard on another page. "Someone who is going to go to all that trouble" will be a better and more faithful customer, according to Donna Sweeney of the Direct Mail Marketing Association.

It helps to confront the cynicism people tend to feel about their own personal chances of winning. That's why Reader's Digest is telling you the fraction of families in your state who have already won prizes, why Publishers Clearing House is putting past winners in its TV commercials, and why American Family Publishers will have Ed McMahon choose its million-dollar baby on national television.

Fewer people will mislay or ignore a sweepstakes offering if they think they can gain something by entering right away. A simulated telegram is a good way to convey urgency. Hence The Pines, a Virginia vacation resort, writes: "Final notification/STOP/you have definitely won both the unclaimed gifts listed below . . . October 14, 1982 is the last day you may respond/STOP . . ."

When Joan Conboy opened last Friday's mail, she thought to herself: "Well, that ends 1982, and not one good prize."

The last two years have been slow going for Conboy, which she attributes to a combination of bad luck, the demise of the skill contests at which she excelled ("I like Chicken of the Sea tuna because . . ." etc.) and the rise in postage rates. As a result, she has been forced to cut back from an average of 20 to more like 10 entries a day.

But Conboy has not lost faith. In fact, when one of her sweepstakes-entering buddies suffered a sudden surge in weight and decided to exchange a prize T-shirt for a bigger one, Conboy chewed her out in no uncertain terms. "You know," she said, "you're going to spoil contests for all of us if you keep complaining."