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How popular perceptions of accountancy are changing

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 11 Nov 2021

Every chartered accountant has their reason for entering the profession. But popular perceptions of the profession are changing all the time if comics are anything to go by, Professor Sébastien Rocher at the University of Lorraine tells ICAEW Insights.

Since the 1990s, academic research on the image of the accounting profession in society as seen through popular culture and media has grown.

Films, novels, advertisements, song lyrics and comic books have all become the focus of study – whether the modernism of the homicidal tendencies of Ben Affleck in The Accountant, or the studied ironicisms in Dilbert, to comic books from the middle of the 20th century.

Each image of the accountant is interesting in the way it reflects the moment it was produced and the way it influenced perceptions of accountants by readers at the time, says Rocher.

Better-funded research

In 2017, Professor Rocher published a book on the image of accountants in Franco-Belgian comics since 1947 in partnership with the Association of Accounting Directors (APDC), a French association whose members are mostly accounting directors of major French companies.

His study shows that since the 90s the accountant has become an attractive and seductive character, in contrast to the caricatured stereotype of the stale or uninviting accountant from the 1970’s and 80’s.

“In France, I discovered that the accountant is presented as someone who is good-looking, talented and has affairs – they are appealing to members of the opposite sex,” says Rochers.

Previously accountants in pop culture had quite a narrow focus, but now they have more of a full, well-rounded life, with friends and a back-story of their own.

"A few years ago, it would not have been possible to carry out a study like this in partnership with the accounting profession and publish an illustrated book," he says.

“The academic funders and publishers would not have accepted the stuffy, caricatured images that used to stick to the profession. Today, they laugh about them and do not hesitate to use the book to explain why this image is no longer relevant, and can no longer be, that of accountancy.”

Born in the USA

While he was mainly interested in the physical and behavioural traits of accountants in this study, Rocher, along with his colleagues Mark Christensen from the Essec Business School and Yves Roy, from the University of Poitiers, studied the narrative role of characters practicing the accounting profession in American superhero comics since 1938 - the emblematic date of the birth of Superman.

"A stereotypical image can be accompanied by an important narrative role: that of the saviour. To focus solely on physical traits is to overlook the importance of the accountant's role in everyday life,” he says.

In their article, "'This Looks Like a Job for an Accountant! (with good funeral insurance)': The Changing Roles of Accountants in Superhero Comics from 1938 to 2018" (link to the article, which is behind an academic paywall, here), the three researchers discovered that accountants have increasingly been portrayed in more positive than negative roles since the beginning of the 21st century and have become symbolic superheroes.

"Originally, accountants were mostly presented as characters whose death or personal difficulties helped initiate the plot. They needed the superhero's help. They were victims. When it was not the case, it was because they were the villain,” says Rocher.

“Today, accountants have progressively become functional sidekicks and listened-to advisers. They are now portrayed as being helpful to the superhero in overcoming their difficulties.”

Death from above

From the moment superheroes become company managers, like Iron Man or the Fantastic Four, the question of financial management arises. And accountants appear indispensable. When the muscles of the superhero are no longer enough, accountants are presented as valued and listened-to advisors for their skills, says Rocher.

However, accountants in narratives continue to suffer a lack of longevity, showing that this change is not yet totally complete.

"It is very rare to find recurring accountant characters. The accountant can still represent the artist's opponent. And killing the accountant is also a means to express an artist's critique against management. In that light, accountants may be 'scapegoats' more than the real target of artists, who may use them as a stratagem to obscure the artists' core concern.

“Similarly, killing the accountant may be a way to generate an image of art for art's sake. Kerry Jacobs and Steve Evans have analysed this very well from the Beatles' song lyrics," he adds.

Rocher says there are two reflections on how pop culture sees accountancy now. The first is that the overall image of the profession has improved, with an image disseminated in popular culture media consistent with some of the claims by professional accounting bodies regarding accountants' roles in society. The second is that efforts are still necessary to erase definitively an image that is still too often negative. But things seem to be on the right track. 

Stay tuned for the next adventure of Professor Rocher - a study on how the UK sees its accountants in popular culture.

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