Tomorrow, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales launches a four-week, £230,000 billboard campaign. There will be a different poster every week and, a spokeswoman says, they will be "very humorous, real rib-ticklers."
The aim of the campaign will be twofold: first, to tell people not to use unqualified accountants ("anyone can set up and give the wrong advice on tax," the institute says); and second, to polish up the image of an uncertain profession.
The spokeswoman says people should think of accountants as "highly qualified, skilled business advisers", and claims that young people do indeed think of them primarily as being "experienced and highly paid". She points out that they have to have at least an upper second degree to be accepted by one of the Big Six chartered accountancy firms.
But, she concedes, the image problem persists. One hundred and sixty- two newspaper articles written in the past three years that mention accountants also contain the word "boring". This has much to do with another 27 articles that include both "accountant" and "Monty Python".
In 1971 the television series produced a sketch with some of the most durable negative public relations ever conceived.
Interviewer: "Our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly dull and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considered drawbacks, in accountancy they are a positive boon."
Twenty-four years on, the mud sticks. "They are still very worried about their image," an observer says. "They are always talking about Monty Python."
Two years ago the institute handed out information packs to schoolchildren that contained a psychedelic poster with the slogan, "As colourful as your imagination... chartered accountants aren't as predictable as you think."
But it did not stop the bad PR. A 1992 poll revealed that the place most accountants wanted to live was Milton Keynes.
In the same year Lindi St Clair (aka Miss Whiplash) said that 30 per cent of her clients were accountants. "They are all much the same," she said. "Grey, boring men with secret kinks and fantasies." To their credit, it was the suits themselves who published this comment, in the journal of the London Society of Chartered Accountants.
Accountants now have their own dating agency to provide a more straightforward service. "We do have this image of being dull, lifeless and boring," says Paul George, who set up Prolink.
But in the end they have the last laugh. A battle has broken out among the Big Six to lure the best graduates. The starting rate rose from £14,250 in September 1993 to £17,000 in 1994, and Coopers & Lybrand is offering a £2,000 interest-free loan to help them clear student debts.
The observer believes there may be a subtext to the poster campaign. There are six accountancy bodies in the UK, and the Chartered Institute has been trying to bring them together. It might help, he says, if it gives itself a high public image.
However, chartered, management and certified accountants all do different exams, and there is great rivalry between them. "The certifieds hate the chartereds and the Scots regard the English as inferior, because they say it is only English accountants who get into trouble," he says.