Images of the Profession: Gudrun Baldvinsdottir, John Burns, Hanne Norreklit and Robert Scapens Report on Their Research into How Management Accounting Is Portrayed and Perceived

Article excerpt

Traditional images of management accounting have tended to convey the message that the profession is rather boring--and that accountants are similarly dull. But in recent times there seems to have been a shift in the type of images being used.

The importance of image was highlighted in a debate surrounding an advertising campaign for an accounting software firm called Requisoft in 2004. Its adverts, which ran on the back cover of Financial Management for nine months, featured distinctive photos of a young woman dressed as a dominatrix and holding a whip in her teeth (pictured, left). The accompanying slogans included "Are you strict enough about your expenses?" and "Whip your expenses into shape".

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The campaign hit a raw nerve for some readers: FM published four letters to the editor complaining that the adverts were offensive and demeaning to the profession. But views were mixed overall: although some correspondents said they would rip off the back cover before putting the magazine on display in their offices, others remarked that FM had taken a prominent place in their reception areas--face down.

This debate prompted us to explore the many and varied images connected with the profession in more depth. We believe that such images, along with the perceptions they conjure up, are important because they not only reflect, but also affect, the social identity of management accountants. We also believe that such images both reflect and affect the profession more generally. And, at a time when corporate scandals and the failure of businesses and markets are not uncommon, the social identity of management accountants is particularly important.

To research these issues, we examined the accounting software adverts that have appeared in CIMA's magazines over the past three decades or more. Although these adverts do not necessarily portray management accountants per se, they are aimed at the profession. We assumed that, since the aim of all these adverts is to encourage accountants to purchase the respective products in question, they reflect the roles and values of accountants.

During the seventies and eighties, software adverts portrayed management accountants as the people responsible for identifying the right information for business managers and for meeting their increasing need for information. In general, they claimed that accountants would be more successful if they were to buy such products.

Advertising images used in the nineties hinted that any accountants using the software would become more adventurous and more powerful--even daring and thrill-seeking. The accountant was portrayed as a kind of action hero rather than an analytical thinker. They also tended to show management accountants as successful business "leaders" who followed the best management practices that were embedded in the new software.

But we would particularly like to highlight the images that have been used since the turn of the millennium. The accounting software adverts in this decade--as well as recruitment adverts and web sites such as www.extreme-accounting.com--suggest that management accountants may need an image makeover.

Images of accounting in the noughties show sky-diving, mountain-climbing and other risky pursuits. They project a life that is exciting, where great heights and personal enjoyment can easily be achieved, using images of a hedonistic society. The dominatrix in the Requisoft campaign is one such image. The reaction of some FM readers to it disappointed those who want to shed the profession's dour reputation. But such a reaction is probably not unexpected: there are always some who do not want to change their identities and, for them, the Requisoft adverts were denigrating. Judging by the complaints, there are obviously some management accountants who want to protect their conservative image--ie, that of a person who is respectable, accountable and, in particular, non-seducible. …