IN THE WASHINGTON POST recently, a man took a full page ad to tell his wife on their anniversary and her birthday that he loved her. It cost him over $6,000 to send his version of the very best, which like all things newspaperish has either yellowed by now or wound up in the bottom of a parakeet cage. This is a sad truth any columnist could have told him.

The man is associated with the real estate business which, until the ad came along, we were given to believe was in a slump. His wife is in business with him. She said she did not know anything about the ad until a reporter called her and asked her for a comment. She said she was pleased.

Maybe she was, but if she wasn't, I doubt she would say so. The rules pertaining to gifts do not permit anything other than a smile and a thank-you when you get one. This holds true in cases like this even though such public protestations of love sometimes augur a guilty conscience and always call as much attention to the giver as it does to the givee. It is the husband, after all, who has seized our attention, and what murmurings there were the next day did not concern what kind of woman deserved such a gift, but rather what kind of man would give it. Somehow she got lost in all this.

This is a common phenomenon. You could call it the gift that doesn't quite give or the gift that gives to anyone in sight. Examples are the singing telegrams in which the recipient is made to feel like a fool and the birthday dinner in which the waiters gather around the table and make the honored guest part of the floor show and, of course, the romance-by-plane routine in which some romantic message is written across the heavens by a skywriter -- "I LOVE YOU JANE."

Include, in somewhat the same spirit, the enormous rocks some women sport on their fingers, a testament more to their husband's success than to their love. It almost appears as if they have rented space on their wive's fingers to tell the world they have made it big. The same holds for gifts like really audacious furs, convertibles of any color and, in their own way, articles that are engraved with the name of the giver and are either tasteless or useless after they have gone their own way.

I happen to know something about this firsthand because not too long ago a friend sent me a birthday gift -- a belly dancer. She came up to the hallowed newsroom of The Washington Post and there, in approximately the same spot where Robert Redford once stood, rang a bell and took off her clothes. Colleagues assembled from all over the newsroom while this young lady, clad in almost nothing, danced around me, putting her stomach into the rinse cycle and me into a panic. Let me tell you something, belly dancer fans.You can do two things when a naked lady is dancing around you: You can either look at her and appear the fool or not look at her and appear the fool. I had the best of all possible worlds. I did both.

In each and every one of these instances, the recipient becomes more than just someone who has received a gift. He or she becomes a spectacle, too. The gift, in some sense, is for all the people who are watching and listening and laughing themselves sick -- and for the person who paid for the gift. He or she gets lots of credit for remembering -- and for spending lots of money.

The really awful thing about such gifts, though, is that they are given with the understanding that you cannot complain. You have to pretend you're grateful. They are, after all, a gift. You have to smile and say how really touched you are and then say thank you.

A friend, quoting someone else, calls these situations "The Great Bear Trap." The principle is fairly simple. All you need for the Great Bear Trap is to be somehow disappointed or hurt by a gift and not be able to say anything about it. This is a common childhood occurence and it usually involves an expected gift that turns out to be wind-up models, for instance. It doesn't matter what the gift is, what matters is being put into a situation where you have to be grateful -- and gracious -- when you are really hurt and mad. Nothing can hurt like the wrong gift.

There are, though, no hard and fast rules about things. Who's to say that the man who sent his wife a message via the newspaper meant anything more by it than what he said -- "I love you." I, for one, take him at his word and thank him, I know he loves her but I also know that his gift helped underwrite my salary and somehow I can't help but think that I got more out of the gift than his wife did.