January 31, 2014 12:01 pm

How Bono and BofA made sweet music

‘Bono admits that U2 was initially wary about embracing a bank. But he argues that the end justifies the means’
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of an electric guitar©Shonagh Rae

When more than 100 million sports fans watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, they will see a plethora of advertisements – including a prominent one from Bank of America. No surprise there: the NFL’s championship game is a highly prized advertising platform, and BofA, like other corporate names, has earmarked a good chunk of its vast marketing budget to the event.

But this year’s ad will have an unusual twist. Instead of extolling the joys of banking, the BofA ad will declare that for 24 hours everyone can download a new song from U2, “Invisible”, for free. The bank will then donate $1 for every download to a global fund to fight Aids, organised in association with Red, the philanthropic group co-founded by Bono. This comes on top of a $10m “simple” donation from BofA.

The aim, then, is to generate not just money but public awareness for the Aids campaign – and for BofA. “This is an advertisement but it’s not really an ad,” Brian Moynihan, the CEO of BofA, explained to me in Davos, as he huddled in a tiny hotel cubbyhole next to Bono. The former was wearing an achingly dull suit; the latter had earrings, stubble and very weird sunglasses. But the two men seemed to have forged a genuine bond: their body chemistry was relaxed and they teased each other, explaining that they had been brainstorming ideas for more than a year. “Bono came up with this idea to get a commercial [with us] – the aim is to create heat and energy,” Moynihan explained, joking about the discussions on the phone. Or, as the flamboyant rock star explained, “BofA are spending all this money [at the Super Bowl] but normally that would just be to say ‘Here’s BofA!’ This is very subtle – it’s to raise awareness [of Aids].”

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Gillian Tett

Is this kind of unlikely alliance a good thing? It is a big question now hanging over the philanthropic world. A couple of decades ago, when companies engaged in philanthropy, it tended to be kept separate from their core activities. Charity workers, for their part, generally disliked collaborating too closely with big corporate players, for fear of sullying their brand and virtue.

Now these boundaries are breaking down. At Davos, executives were falling over themselves to proclaim their desire to “engage” with society and philanthropic groups in new ways. A cynic might suggest that this is because these corporate luminaries are worried about a social backlash, as economic inequality increases. But Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, insists that many corporate workers sincerely want to “find a higher purpose than just making money”. Either way, banks such as BofA certainly have strong motives to “engage” in innovative ways. A poll by Edelman, the public relations company, suggests that half of all consumers distrust banks.

The philanthropic sector is under pressure to become more innovative too. Government aid budgets are being cut in the western world and the attention span of consumers – or donors – is becoming more fickle. Hence the fact that celebrities such as Bono are so keen to use BofA’s marketing budget to create a “buzz”. If the U2 song goes viral, he reasons, it could potentially put the Aids campaign back on the political agenda.

Of course, this approach is not without risks for both sides. Bono, for example, admits that U2 was initially wary about embracing a bank. But he argues that the end justifies the means. “When we looked at BofA and got to know [Moynihan], we saw that values were important to them and they were trying to compensate for the financial mess. But to be honest, even if they weren’t [decent] but were willing to give us $10m, I would still be sitting here.

“The band wouldn’t,” he added with a chuckle, as Moynihan laughed. “They are the ones who find some of the company I keep really excruciating. But I have long since given up on that kind of vanity – it’s about outcomes. Our audience want us to be effective, and you have to be prepared to make unusual allies.”

A smart move or a pact with the devil? The judgment is still unclear. Personally, I am inclined to applaud this move. And if Sunday’s campaign does go viral, undoubtedly others will follow. Indeed, there were rumours at Davos that more deals were being discussed. The only intriguing question is, who will cuddle up next with whom? Beyoncé and Lloyd Blankfein? Adele and American Express? Answers please on a postcard or, in line with the new mood, sent via self-destructing Snapchat.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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