Earlier this year, it looked as if Bank of America's (NYSE:BAC) plan to spruce up its tarnished public image was having some effect, but that momentum was short-lived. A recent survey once again saw B of A failing miserably in the reputation department, and the rumpus over the bank having directed employees to deliberately scuttle efforts by troubled homeowners to refinance their mortgages isn't adding any polish, either.
When it comes to shooting itself in the figurative foot with the general public, Bank of America just can't seem to help itself. This recent incident, while not as shocking as lying to desperate mortgage customers, showcases how little control B of A seems to have over its impulse to irk and annoy.
Chalk-based graffiti smears should have been ignored
A recent court case in California illustrates this point. The chalk graffiti incident involved a 40-year-old protester, Jeff Olson, who got himself arrested for chalking anti-bank slogans on the sidewalk outside of Bank of America branch locations in San Diego. Olson was brought up on 13 counts of vandalism, each of which carried a fine of $1,000 and a term of one year in jail. This case brought on a wave of support for Olson, whom a jury acquitted earlier this week.
This made Bank of America look bad, not because "Shame on Bank of America" was scrawled on the sidewalk outside its doors, but because the bank apparently contacted the office of the city attorney to push for prosecution. Putting aside the fact that the charge was a stretch -- walkways in any large city certainly sustain contact with worse materials than chalk -- it seemed quite petty. Even the mayor thought it was a ridiculous suit, and a waste of public money.
What was Bank of America thinking?
The case represented another scuffle between the city attorney's office and the mayor, a battle from which B of A should have steered clear. By getting involved, the bank changed its part from ringside observer to participant, and not in a good way.
Bank of America isn't the only big bank to engage in questionable behavior, or commit public relations gaffes. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) was recently forced to write off about $1.6 billion in a case in which it made pots of money off of greedy officials in Jefferson County, Alabama, while helping to push the county into bankruptcy.
Then, there was a recent faux pas on the part of Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), whereby a man undergoing chemotherapy was put through some major inconvenience when he entered a branch in Montebello, California, wearing a surgical mask. He noted that he was only trying to protect his frail immune system against germs, but an employee thought he was a holdup artist dubbed the "Surgical Mask" robber. The man was put through much humiliation and was quite unhappy with Wells Fargo.
At least this story had a happy ending. By way of apology, Wells gave the man a check for $5000 to donate to the charity of his choice.
In Bank of America's case, the sidewalk graffiti incident got blown out of proportion, turning into a free speech issue when a judge prohibited Olson's attorney from using a First Amendment defense, focusing solely on the vandalism issue. The outrage surrounding this case is apparent from this Huffington Post piece, where one commenter muses about whether positive remarks regarding Bank of America would have garnered the same charges.
Now that Olsen has been acquitted, the city attorney and Bank of America look worse than ever. It seems that B of A will never learn, always taking the path to public revilement even when it would be more sensible -- and easier -- to take no action at all. From imposing unpopular debit card fees to actively enforcing unethical behavior, the big bank just can't seem to learn that oftentimes, less is more.
Fool contributor Amanda Alix has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America and Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.