BofA’s influence on U.S. history, as seen on TV

Share via

United States history is filled with such heroes as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks and Bank of America.

Well, maybe not, but the colossal bank is doing its best to join the pantheon.

After being excoriated for its role in the financial crisis and government bailout, BofA has been looking for ways to show its influence on the U.S. economy in a positive light. The History channel’s uplifting “America: The Story of Us,” an ambitious 12-part series that recounts 400 years of U.S. history, offered the opportunity.

The bank signed on as lead sponsor of History’s dramatization of such milestones as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, California Gold Rush and Great Depression. “America: The Story of Us” made history for the cable channel on Sunday when a record 5.7 million people tuned in for the first episode.

In recent years, TV networks have become increasingly reliant on advertisers to underwrite event-style programs. Still, BofA’s partnership with History is unusual. Instead of buying traditional 30-second ads, BofA produced a dozen two-minute commercial messages that bring to life episodes of its own history.

Each of the bank’s spots — which it calls mini- documentaries — highlights the period covered in each episode. And each two-minute message ends with a salute to the bank’s current-day activities in communities.

“The pieces are different. They are not about a particular [banking] product,” said Meredith Verdone, Bank of America’s senior vice president for brand advertising. “We will tell the parallel story of how we contributed to the building of the infrastructure of America.”

Gary Carr, a senior vice president at media strategizing firm TargetCast Total Communications Management, said the series was an ideal platform because “Bank of America needs to repair its image. And this show will bring the perfect audience, upscale and intelligent viewers.”

History executives described the bank’s financial contribution as “an unprecedented level of support,” but they declined to provide figures.

BofA got deep into trouble after acquiring two casualties of the mortgage meltdown: Countrywide Financial Corp., the biggest supplier of high-risk home loans, and Merrill Lynch & Co., a major creator of what came to be known as “toxic” mortgage bonds. The bank survived the financial crisis, helped by $45 billion from the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, but Chief Executive Ken Lewis quit, collecting $69 million in pension and stock benefits. The bank repaid the $45 billion to the government last year.

“We recognize that a lot of consumers are distrustful and skeptical of banks right now,” Verdone said, adding that was one reason “we thought it was important to tell the story of the role that Bank of America has played in our country’s history. We have been there at very pivotal points.”

The spots also will play on screens in bank branches, on its website and later, on DVDs, which will be distributed to schools.

In its first message, BofA describes the birth of the U.S. banking system. The bank also played up its California ties. In 1931, it helped finance the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and in the May 17 episode, the bank describes how it came to rescue after filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille went “wildly over budget” during the shooting of “The Ten Commandments” in 1923. “Once Bank of America backs DeMille’s artistic vision and offers him half a million dollars, the filming continues uninterrupted,” the spot says.

Nancy Dubuc, general manager of History, said the series “drives home the idea that America is an invention, geographically, socially and politically. We were born to persevere, and we tried to make that our theme.”

That’s why, she said, the bank was a fitting sponsor.

“Obviously, as a nation, we have undergone a crisis in confidence in the banking industry,” Dubuc said. “We are dealing with that as a nation, and Bank of America is dealing with that as a company. The bank is demonstrating its resilience.”