AIG to America: Thanks, guys!

December 31, 2012

The giant insurance company that became the recipient of one of the biggest—and least popular—bailouts in history has a message for the American taxpayer: Hey, thanks a lot!

Just weeks after the Treasury sold off its final stake in AIG and closed out one of the ugliest chapters of the 2008 financial crisis, the recipient of  $180 billion in capital injections and loans is launching a new public relations offensive to try to rebuild a, shall we say, strained relationship with the American public.

The advertising campaign is titled “Thank You America,” the company said in a news release Monday, and it debuts New Year’s Day. It spotlights the insurers’ employees “telling AIG’s story and sharing their pride in the company,” and showing how the company has helped America rebuild after devastation, such as in Joplin, Mo. after a devastating tornado and in the aftermath of  Hurricane Sandy. Look for the ads in college football bowl games, NFL playoff games, and news shows including The Today Show, Good Morning America, and 60 Minutes.

Now that taxpayers have sold off their stake in the company—and made a tidy $22 billion in profit in the process—it is perhaps not surprising that AIG wants to re-cast its image. It is reminiscent of the memorable Clint Eastwood Chrysler commercial in last year’s Super Bowl that was managed to make buying a car from another bailed-out company (and one now run by Italians!) feel like a patriotic duty (“This country can't be knocked out with one punch,” Eastwood growled. “We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.”

And the “Thank You America” message shows how much things have changed in the four years since its federal rescue. It was in February of 2009, for example, that the company's plans to pay bonuses to workers who were unwinding the complex financial deals that had brought AIG to the brink of bankruptcy. Those plans earned a fusillade of criticism from Capitol Hill, including calls for the company to ignore its contracts with those workers. In the uproar, the House even passed a bill to put in place a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid by companies that received bailout money, 328 to 93. It died in the Senate, a case of the old saw about the Senate being the saucer that cools hot tea proving apt.

AIG’s chief executive, Robert H. Benmosche, has had a particularly testy relationship with the government, threatening to resign over government-induced pay restrictions and asking for the company to provide him a private jet. (“The country’s most tone-deaf CEO,” as a Fortune headline put it).

Now that Uncle Sam is out of AIG’s business, Benmosche is striking a more conciliatory tone. “We thank America for allowing us to insure a brighter future and to bring on tomorrow,” he said in the announcement of the new ad campaign.

The press release had one other small reminder of AIG’s time as a ward of the state, though one that would be noticed by fans of financial crisis trivia. The company’s headquarters is at 180 Maiden Lane, in New York. The special investment vehicles that the New York Fed created to hold its AIG bailout funds were known as “Maiden Lane II LLC” and “Maiden Lane III LLC”. (The first Maiden Lane LLC was the vehicle for the Bear Stearns bailout)

It is purely a coincidence: The New York Fed is also located on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan.

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Ezra Klein · December 31, 2012