When Richard Nixon hired TV producer Roger Ailes as a charisma doctor during the 1968 presidential campaign, "a certain number of people were highly skeptical," recalls journalist Joe McGinniss. "They felt there was no such thing as image, that it was all hokum."

But today, says McGinniss--who chronicled the origins of the image-making industry in The Selling of The President 1968--"there's no longer any question about the importance of image . . . and it's gone way beyond politics. Publishers want authors who will look good on tour. Corporations star executives in commercials--like Lee Iacocca with Chrysler--who personify the image they want to project.

"It's reached the degree where you wonder where the image stops and the reality begins."

Ailes now runs his own multimillion dollar Manhattan-based company, Ailes Communications, Inc., with clients ranging from politicians such as Sens. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) to top executives of Fortune 500 companies. He prefers the title "communications consultant."

"The term 'image,' " he claims, "has a negative connotation . . . as if you're creating something that isn't there. What we do is help people learn how to project what they already have."

Ailes' credentials and price--$5,000 for the basic 12-hour training course--have given his firm the reputation as the Rolls-Royce of the industry. But the growing field is becoming crowded with a wide variety of consultants whose quality ranges from questionable to exceptional. Often the image-makers specialize in a certain type of client, such as women over 40, the overweight, business executives, politicians, or a certain aspect of the self-promotion game: speech, grooming, media relations, wardrobe.

In the past year alone, the number of "exterior decorators" listed in the Directory of Personal Image Consultants increased 31 percent.

"The latest directory has 206 listings, up from 157 in the previous edition," says New York writer Jacqueline Thompson who launched the publication with 36 listings in 1978 after writing an article about the emerging image industry. She has already sold about 2,000 copies of the 1982-83 issue at $17.50 each through her firm, Editorial Services Co.

Dress and color consultants are responsible for the greatest growth--up from 40 firms in 1980 to 71 in 1982--says Thompson, who separates image-makers into four groups: speech/public appearance, dress and color, personal/public relations and motivation counselors.

"Although it may be comforting," she says, "to cling to the notion that substance is more important than superficial externals, that notion is rapidly becoming outmoded."

Why the image explosion? Some, like Ailes, point to "the recognition that the media has such a tremendous influence on our lives. People figure they better learn how to utilize it."

Others, like Thompson, say the image industry is fueled by the tough economy's tendency to inspire both entrepreneurship and unemployment anxiety.

Or as New York personnel recruiter John W. Hill summed it up in a Playboy article, "Which Suit Got The Job?": "When a guy looks perfect for a job, people assume he is perfect. It's known in the industry as the 'halo effect.' "

"In a tight job market people need all the help they can get," New York image pioneer Emily Cho recently told a packed workshop of 150 Washington-area wardrobe, color and image consultants. "Everyone has a degree and credentials. They want that extra something a professional image consultant offers."

In the 15 years since Cho launched her service, New Image, she has concluded that "people go to image-makers for five basic reasons: It helps them gain confidence, beat the competition, make their money go further, ease the pressures and look up-to-the minute in yesterday's clothes."

After a decade of requests, Cho recently started offering a two-day course in the image business: $1,500 for the consultant and $500 for the assistant. Her clients pay $100 for a preliminary visit, $200 for her to set aside a choice of clothes in New York stores and $50 an hour to accompany them shopping. More than 5,000 women who can't afford this service have paid $25 and filled out a computerized questionnaire to receive an individualized wardrobe plan.

The industry's biggest problem, says McLean fashion and image consultant Brenda York, "are the people who call themselves image consultants and don't know what they're doing."

To remedy the problem, she has organized about 25 area image-makers into the American Society of Fashion and Image Consultants. "We need an association that will establish the credentials, accreditation and certification. People are getting ripped off and it hurts the industry."

In the six years since she launched York & Associates in McLean, her clientele has changed, she says, from "domestic engineers who wanted to talk about their fashion consultant at the country club" to "female executives who don't have the time to shop for themselves."

Other clients--who pay $45 an hour or $400 for a complete consultation--range from "computer people who need to deal with nontechnical customers" to "unemployed or RIFfed people looking for new jobs."

While York says she can help most people enhance their image, clients sometimes are looking for more than she can offer.

"One woman came to me very unhappy. She insisted that what she wanted was for me to make her happy, so I gently suggested she go to a psychologist.

"I told her, 'What you want I can't give you. You'll have to work on the inside yourself before I can help you work on the outside.' "