SAN FRANCISCO -- BankAmerica Corp. is harking back to its populist roots in its latest advertising campaign.

The company has mounted a massive billboard and television offensive portraying everyday people in a variety of working situations: a rancher, an airport ramp worker, an architect, a fisherman. All the ads carry the slogan "Banking on America."

By focusing on its customers, the ads position the nation's second-largest banking company as the financial institution for ordinary folks. The theme is a throwback to BankAmerica founder A.P. Giannini, who early in the century envisioned his company as the bank for the "little fellow."

Faithful to Founder

"The ads are updating the original principles that Giannini had in mind: to provide financial help to individual Americans,"said Lynn B. Upshaw, chief operating officer of BankAmerica's agency, Ketchum Advertising, San Francisco.

What's more, the slogan "Banking on America" exploits the company's name to promote BankAmerica as the bank for Americans everywhere. The theme is well suited an organization that still has nationwide ambitions.

"Banking on America" is BankAmerica's first full-scale marketing offensive since the acquisition of Security Pacific Corp. last April. Rolled out in June, the drive is now under way in California, Oregon, and Arizona. BankAmerica and Ketchum would not disclose the size of the budget for the campaign, although it clearly amounts to tens of millions of dollars. Ketchum did say it has added more than 20 employees to handle the BankAmerica account.

"You can't turn on the television that you don't see B of A," said Kevin R. Kelly, chief executive of U.S. Bank of Oregon, the state's biggest bank.

The characters in BankAmerica's billboard ads are alone, surrounded by the tools or products of their trade. Their bearing and expressions convey a quiet sense of pride and dignity.

The only copy is the "Banking on America" slogan and the Bank of America name and logo placed unobtrusively in a corner.

Ordinary Heroes

Television commercials show a series of individuals, mainly in works situations, backed by a catchy, contemporary musical theme.

"Who says there are no heroes?" asks one ad. Those heroes are ordinary people who have worked hard and raised themselves by the bootstraps, such as the dishwasher who saved his money and bought the restaurant where he worked.

Almost as an afterthought, the commercials note that BankAmerica might be able to help such folks meet their financial needs.

The men and women who appear in the ads are of different races, ethnic backgrounds and economic levels. Quick cuts and modern editing techniques give an up-to-date effect without being sick.

Adding Some Warmth

"It's super imagery,' says K. Shelly Porges, a former BankAmerica marketing executive now working as a consultant. "It gives Bank of America a warm personal face."

But some advertising pros say the campaign amounts to mere posturing unless BankAmerica proves that it cares about its customers.

"They're taking a large, cold machine and trying to romanticize it," said Murray Kalis, president and creative director of Coen/Kalis Inc., a Los Angeles advertising agency. "They have to make fundamental changes at the teller window and back it up in very real ways, which is almost impossible to do."

"Banking on America" is soft sell. There are no product tie-ins in the first generation of commercials and only the most muted appeals to do business with BankAmerica.

As the campaign progresses, however, product themes may be worked into future ads, people connected with the campaign said. Already BankAmerica radio ads for specialized services, such as investment products, use the "Banking on America" slogan.

Others Have Been There

California, of course, is no stranger to bank image advertising campaigns.

Wells Fargo Bank, the No. 2 bank in the state, has pushed its Old West, stagecoach image for many years, continually updating the theme.

In recent years, the bank used the slogan "Wells Fargo Comes Through" to suggest that the bank has gone the extra mile for customers for more than a century. Ads now running stress reliability and extended banking hours under the slogan "A Better Brand of Service."

First Interstate Corp.'s ads claim superior service, showing employees going out of their way to take care of customers.

Rivals see "Banking on America" as BankAmerica's effort to press its advantage in the West following the Security Pacific merger. But those behind the ads say the link between the campaign and the merger is coincidental.

The campaign is in fact the first fruit of a recent BankAmerica ad agency switch.

After an extensive search last year, the company dropped its long-time relationship with Grey Advertising in favor of Ketchum. Agency officials say they began developing the "Banking on America" theme as part of their pitch to win the account.

Another Image Approach

"We were working on the beginnings of it before we knew there was a merger," Mr. Upshaw said.

Ketchum wasn't the only shop promoting an image campaign based on Bank of America's name. When the account was up for review, Grey proposed a campaign based on the idea of Bank of America as "America's Bank," said Warren Peterson, a Grey executive vice president.

With image advertising campaigns like BankAmerica's, no matter how many awards they may win, the inevitable question is whether they will actually make any difference in the marketplace.

To Mr. Upshaw, the ads perform the vital function of communicating BankAmerica's sense of purpose.

"We believe the bank's success in the future depends not only on products and services, but on what the bank stands for," he said.

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