First, from the experts, a few words in praise of Marlboro advertising: "The reflective pleasure of tobacco pervades the ad. It unifies the desire for a perfect Christmas with the experience of smoking. The surgeon general has no chance against this."

No one on Madison Avenue is running scared of the surgeon general. Most advertising executives would rather not discuss the special problems in selling a product that can kill, but the lighthearted hymn to Marlboro in the Christmas issue of the trade magazine Advertising Age is not unique.

The tobacco industry and its promoters have taken some hard knocks, but no roof has fallen on them yet. Last year, more than 620 billion cigarettes were smoked in America.

Does the new attack led by HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano create more problems?

"We don't have problems.Califano has problems," retorted Frank Saunders, vice president of Philip Morris.

Fifteen years after the surgeon general warned that smoking is dangerous, the tobacco industry's advertising arsenal has been reduced -- no ads appear on radio or television and a health warning is printed on every pack -- but business for the advertisers of cigarettes is bigger than ever.

In 1970, the final year of cigarette advertising on the air, television received $205 million of a tobacco industry advertising budget of $314 million.

In 1977, the industry spent $404 million to advertise the 20 top-selling brands alone, according to Advertising Age.

Still, advertising executives are humble about their contribution to the continued financial success of tobacco companies. They are also humble anonymously since the cigarette manufacturers like to do their own talking.

The manufacturers' message is that advertising doesn't sell cigarettes. Cigarettes sell cigarettes.

"Smoking is a very important social expression," one said. "And, of course, once one starts, cigarettes are addictive."

The core of Philip Morris' advertising pitch has been to develop "very personalized, friendly brand images," senior Vice President John Landry wrote in Madison Avenue Magazine.

"Cigarettes are, after all, one of the most personal items available on the market," Landry added.

Sara Ridgway, Lorillard's director of public relations, described the industry's conviction that cigarettes have a great deal to do with self-image this way:

"When you go to lunch, you put your cigarettes right on the table. That pack makes a statement about you."

The message is: You are what you smoke.

"Marlboro Country," however, is a long way from some of the pre-surgeon general advertising. Old Gold used to claim, "Not a cough in a carload." Before the surgeon general began trying to tell people that there are worse things than being overweight, Lucky Strikes used to urge: "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet."

The image advertising which shows only healthy, mostly young people purposefully ignores the facts. "The real issue is the surgeon general giving bad news," market researcher Joe Smith said. "So what's real has to be denied."

However, advertising of the low-tar brands has begun to appear almost as frequently as the image ads.

In 1954, when Marlboro came on the market, very few Americans smoked filter cigarettes. It was thought a feminine, perhaps sissy, thing to do.

The Marlboro man helped take care of that. Now, in another major change, the surgeon general has helped populate Marlboro County with "lights" and other low-tar cigarettes.

American Brands' Carlton Menthols got an enormous boost last summer when Gio B. Gori, an official at HEW's National Cancer Institute, issued a report saying that smoking was a "tolerable" risk if smokers stuck to low-tar brands. Gori ranked Carlton Methols as safest and said smoking 23 of them a day was "tolerable."

In the up-front-with-the-truth world of low-tar, Carlton's name is old-fashioned today, Now, Fact, Real, True and Merit are the no-nonsense names manufacturers have chosen as appropriate for cigarettes that are not going to stand or fall solely by satisfying.

John C. Maxwell Jr., who writes a newsletter on the tobacco industry, said that a third of the total sales volume is now in low-tar cigarettes and he expects the new brands to capture an increasingly larger share.(Only about 10 percent of the cigarettes sold now are unfiltered which hasn't hurt profits since filters cost manufacturers less than tobacco does.)

Whether the advertising is aimed at a person's self-image or the desire to make the health risk as tolerable as possible, the cigarette manufacturers insist that their ads are not designed to hook new smokers, but only to convince smokers to switch brands.

"Nobody in the enemy forces will concede that," said Saunders of Philip Morris.

Friend or foe, it is difficult to determine where one advertising purpose ends and another begins.

The calls for a complete ban on cigarette advertising are expected to increase, but some antismoking forces wonder what the effect will be.

They note that the largest singleyear drop in cigarette sales was in 1969, the second year of free antismoking commercials on the air under the Federal Communications Commission's fairness doctrine.

After cigarette commercials left the air in 1971, so did most antismoking messages. That year was a very good one for the tobacco industry with increased sales of 13 billion.

One effect of a proposed advertising ban has nothing to do with the nation's health. There would be a catastrophic revenue loss for magazines and newspapers.

The years since 1970 have been a bonanza for these recipients of all tobacco advertising. For several magazines, cigarette ads are the difference between black and red ink on the balance sheet.

People, Playboy, Penthouse and Sport received about 20 percent of their total advertising revenue from tobacco ads in 1976, according to Publishers Information Bureau figures. Tobacco was 38 percent of Oui's advertising revenue. For Time, it was 18 percent and for Newsweek, 15 percent.

Only a handful of magazines, including the Reader's Digest, the New Yorker, the National Geographic, Good Housekeeping and the Washington Monthly, refuse cigarette advertising.

Ms. runs cigarette ads, but rejects Virginia Slims because it finds "You've come a long way, baby" a sexist slogan.

It is also an ironic pitch to women when the surgeon general reports that women are smoking more and lung cancer among women has increased fivefold since 1966.