Talk about Big Mac attacks: McDonald's aggressive advertising campaign to woo customers with promises of good nutrition has left a bad taste in the mouths of three state attorneys general. The California, Texas and New York officials charge that the giant fast-food chain is being "deceptive."

The state officials have asked that the ads be discontinued and threatened McDonald's with legal action if they are not. As a result, the 9,400-outlet chain, which feeds 17 million Americans a day, has been caught in a sticky situation: Keep running the ads and risk being sued; stop the ads and guarantee embarrassment.

A spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Robert Abrams says the issue "was resolved for the moment" last week, when McDonald's said no further ads had been scheduled.

"We are not moving to do anything legally at this point," says spokeswoman Lanie Accles. "These ads are not being placed now ... At the moment, we're pleased."

McDonald's, however, denies it is stopping anything. "We have simply said McDonald's will not make any new commitment to run any of the eight advertisements prior to our meeting ... We are not agreeing to terminate the campaign," says spokeswoman Stephanie Skurdy. The company says it will use meetings with the states to convince them the ads are "truthful and straightforward."

One of the ads has a picture of a bottle of milk, a glossy brown potato and a container of freshly ground beef. The accompanying slogan: "What we're all about." Other ads trumpet the leaner qualities of McDonald's beef, the "extra calcium" in the hamburger buns, and the "less than a pinch" of salt in the french fries.

The problem, said Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox in a sharply worded letter to the company, is that "McDonald's food is, as a whole, not nutritious. The intent and result of the current campaign is to deceive consumers into believing the opposite. Fast food customers often choose to go to McDonald's because it is inexpensive and convenient. They should not be fooled into eating there because you have told them it is also nutritious."

These ads have been seen by a lot of people -- a few of the magazines they've run in are Woman's Day, TV Guide, Newsweek, McCall's and Ladies' Home Journal. But then, not only is McDonald's the country's largest fast-food chain, it's one of the most visible corporations of any type. It says it has employed 20 percent of the American working public at one time or other; in the course of a year, more than 95 percent of American consumers will eat at least one meal there.

The chain, while defending the estimated $20 million campaign -- which consists of eight double-page ads that started running in January -- sent a letter to the Texas attorney general asking for a meeting. That meeting has yet to be scheduled; California's attorney general is scheduled to meet with the company late this month.

"There's nothing much to meet about," says Texas Assistant Attorney General Stephen Gardner. "We told them to pull the ads or face a lawsuit. We're happy to meet with them if they want to discuss it further, but we're not going to change our minds or reverse our position, and we're not going to rewrite their ads for them."

The decision to pursue the issue was the result of an ad-hoc, informal effort among the three states. It was prompted by complaints from the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. All three states sent roughly the same letter to McDonald's.

The specific problems listed by the attorneys general:

The ad discussing salt says, "Our sodium is down across the menu." But the same ad lists four products (regular fries, regular cheeseburger, 6-piece McNuggets, and vanilla milkshake) -- "none of which have had their sodium content lowered in the past year."

One ad promotes the milkshakes as containing "Wholesome milk, natural sweetners, a fluid ounce of flavoring, and stabilizers for consistency. And that's all." The letters say: "McDonald's own ingredient booklet shows that this milkshake actually contains artificial flavor, sodium benzoate and sodium hexametaphosphate, two chemical preservatives. This ad doesn't tell the whole story."

The ad on shortening emphasizes the relatively low cholesterol level of the chain's hamburger, "but doesn't even mention the saturated fat content, much more relevant to those with cause for concern about heart disease."

In a reply to the Texas attorney general, former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano -- a partner in the law firm representing McDonald's -- said the advertising "is truthful and accurate."

Specifically, he said the first ad's claim that "sodium is down across the menu" didn't actually mean the company was claiming sodium was down in all products -- only "across the entire spectrum of its menu."

As for the milkshake ad, the company said it "stands by its description of the contents," because the ad did note that the milkshakes contain "a fluid ounce of flavoring" -- which is where the chemicals mentioned by the attorneys general exist.

Finally, the Califano letter says the cholesterol ad is okay because McDonald's legally had "no obligation to describe the product's saturated fat content."

More generally, Califano writes that "the advertising campaign is not deceptive, either viewed as a whole or in any material part ... Out of eight separate advertisements made up of several thousand words of copy, your letter questions barely a dozen words ... "

Texas' Gardner says those assertions obscure the issue. "They set up a false hypothesis and then ridicule it ... These are only examples. The ad campaign continues in this vein and has a tendency and capacity to deceive millions of customers."

The letters were prompted, says New York's Accles, by a "feeling that they exaggerated the nutritional value of their products. The impression we feel they've created is that eating anything at McDonald's is nutritionally sound, is good for you. But there are certain of the foods that contain unhealthy levels of salt, fat and cholesterol."

The ad campaign has been picked on from almost the beginning. The advertising magazine Madison Avenue, in its February/March issue, says it was "irksome to see {McDonald's} try to paint the picture a shade too rosy." And a recent editorial in another trade magazine, Advertising Age, cites the McDonald's case as the leading example of how the states have seized control of advertising regulation from a sleepy Federal Trade Commission. (The FTC is now looking into the issue.)

In addition, an Advertising Age article last month quotes an internal memo between an executive with McDonald's public relations agency, Golin/Harris Communications, and McDonald's publicist Skurdy. The memo seems to indicate the chain was aware of potential problems in promoting their food as nutritious.

"We all seemed to agree that, if possible, McDonald's should attempt to deflect the basic negative thrust of our critics by creating a scenario where we take the high road," the executive wrote in a March 18, 1986 memo.

"How do we do this? By talking 'moderation and balance.' We can't -- at this stage of the situation -- really address or defend nutrition. We don't sell nutrition, and people don't come to McDonald's for nutrition."

Says Skurdy now: "The memo was ... a thought-piece produced by a person at one of our agencies who is no longer there ... It was simply someone sending me his thoughts on the subject of nutrition."

She rejects the assertion that "people don't come to McDonald's for nutrition": "People come to McDonald's knowing that you can get nutrition from our food. It's of the highest quality, and probably of better consistency than what you could prepare at home."

Counters Gardner of Texas: "They could emphasize the good points of McDonald's food, like the fact their milkshake contains milk, without overstating its healthfulness. It is possible -- but this campaign as presently constituted is deceptive."

Neither side, then, seems prepared to give in. In the battle over the burgers, victory has yet to be determined.