Bank of America Shines TARP-Tarnished Image

Bank of America, which repaid $45 billion in TARP aid in December, is using a new History Channel miniseries to showcase its role in some of America's biggest milestones.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- Bank of America (BAC) - Get Report, which repaid $45 billion in TARP aid in December, is using a new History Channel miniseries to showcase its role in some of America's biggest milestones.

During

The Story of U.S.

, a 12-hour miniseries that debuted Sunday, Bank of America will air 12, two-minute "mini-documentaries" that discuss how the company's acquired banks helped fund the construction of the Erie Canal and Golden Gate Bridge, rebuild Chicago after the 1871 fire and develop the nation's currency.

A lot is riding on the campaign.

Bank of America

, like other

big banks

, needs to regain the trust of a skeptical public that remains livid at "too big to fail" financial institutions. By stressing the bank's connection to touchstones of American history, the company will highlight the positive contributions of banks in the U.S. economy.

"Part of the strategy is to really put a spotlight on the fact that institutions like ours do matter in Americans' economic life," says Meredith Verdone, Bank of America's senior vice president for brand, advertising and research. "Although, right now, we recognize there is this distrust of institutions, it was really important to tell this story."

While advertising and marketing costs declined by as much as 10% during the first quarter from a year earlier at Bank of America,

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

and

Wells Fargo

(WFC) - Get Report

, that might change as bailed out banks try to improve their images, says Michael Moebs, chief executive of Moebs Services, a Chicago-based research firm that analyzes financial institutions and banking trends.

"They were just backing off and now they will come on strong," he says.

Ron Shevlin, a banking analyst for Boston-based Aite Group, says the top 100 banks average about $2 billion a year in combined media spending. When the economy is growing and consumer demand is strong, bank ads try to snare customers by touting new products and deals. When things sour, companies pitch the quality of their service.

But this time, banks are trying to recover from a financial meltdown they helped cause. To avert a financial collapse, the U.S. government bailed out major banks through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. While many of these banks have repaid government aid they received, many Americans consider the banks and their CEOs examples of reckless corporate greed.

"These banks are recognizing that their brand capital is really hurting and they need to reclaim trust with their customers and general consumers," Shevlin says. "They want to be positioned as kinder, friendlier financial institutions."

Shevlin doubts that ads will succeed in shifting public perception. In the wake of the financial meltdown, banks raised fees and cut lending, alienating many consumers. News of multimillion bonuses on Wall Street fueled the public’s outrage.

"There is a huge disconnect between that personal experience and what their bank says in advertising," he says. "Until they experience whether a bank is truly living up to what it claims to be -- reformed and better customer advocates -- it's not going to materially improve the level of trust. You can’t advertise your way to greatness and trust."

Moebs expects

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

, which is reeling from fraud allegations, to eventually try its hand at an inspirational ad campaign. He also predicts that one of the large banks will sponsor the return of cycling star Lance Armstrong to the Tour de France.

"He has a very good opportunity to win again this year and they have the opportunity to say, 'It is a comeback. Just like we came back, Lance Armstrong is coming back,'" he says.

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.