On a narrow, personal level, I am a satisfied Bank of America customer. The bank embraces my primary demand, which is to not give my money to somebody other than me. It doesn't attempt to upsell me on products I don't want or share my intimate personal information (investments, cup size, etc.) with third parties. I have no beef with Bank of America.
Which, of course, puts me at odds with consumer advocates, government regulators, mortgage watchdogs and the subsegment of elected officials who have both a spine and a conscience. It's impossible to defend the bank's recent record on micro issues (the aborted plan to charge for debit-card usage) or macro ones (the nearly-crashing-the-economy-and-tarnishing-capitalism's-good-name thing). It's a wonder anyone even tries.
And yet every Sunday, when I spend 15 hours of quality time with the television, I can't duck Bank of America's new rah-rah ad campaign, which positions the company as a responsible corporate citizen heavily invested in local communities. At the end of the most-aired spot, Bank of America invites viewers to visit its Web site to hear more tales of the company's boundless magnanimity toward local businesses. Sure! To the site I went, expecting monologues about "our commitment to the future" and "strengthening the community fabric," all set to the strains of major-key synth plinks.
It did not disappoint. In addition to an expanded version of the TV ad in heavy rotation, the Bank of America/New York site presents a gaggle of two- to four-minute videos on uber-local projects either financed or partially underwritten by the company.
The expanded ad touts the bank's role in helping a physician open a cancer clinic in an underserved neighborhood, which involved complex financing and, judging from the video, intense business conversations on bustling city streets in front of colorful fruit stands. The clip on B of A's support of Queens Theatre in the Park highlights the rising-tide effect on nearby printers and caterers, because a community theater without prosciutto-wrapped asparagus is like a strip club without an off-brand ATM. The bit on the bank's Neighborhood Excellence Initiative features would-be physicians from poor neighborhoods and a crane-necked urchin with a wheelbarrow of pumpkins.
To summarize: Bank of America is a kindly patron of local businesses, the arts, the environment, affordable housing, local affordable housing artistry environments and the New York Yankees (it is the team's "official bank," according to the site photo gallery). Also, it will do everything in its power to support crane-necked urchins who, while poor in lucre, are rich in spirit and pumpkins.
It's all too silly and transparent (young child: "This is my favorite part of the house because, um, I can just go in my room and close the door. But in the shelter… I never had my own bed."). Maybe Bank of America has "core values" that align with those of the customers and organizations it serves. Maybe it deeply, truly, sincerely believes that "building a strong community is building strong business."
But right now, Bank of America finds itself in an impossible situation. If it touts its good deeds in a video campaign like this one, it invites skepticism. If it shuts its mouth, plugs its ears and hopes that the storm cloud will blow over, it comes across as indifferent. Until some other company or industry seizes the malfeasant-of-the-month title belt, Bank of America can't win.