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Las Vegas - cashes in

  Las Vegas
cashes in
by Abram Sauer
July 10, 2006

Just as it’s easy to forget that the city was a speck in the desert for 40 years before the first casinos were built, it’s easy to forget that there was time when not everything happening in Las Vegas stayed there.

The undisputed heavyweight champ of location taglines, “What happens here stays here” has its foundation in, appropriately enough, money. In 1999, looking to hang on to its multimillion dollar account, the team at communications agency R&R Partners moved to come up with fresh campaign materials and a new motto for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau (LVCVB).

Of course effective locale tag-lining is nothing new. “Texas: It’s like a whole other country” and “Virginia is for lovers” are both long-running and effective. And though it may have seemed sarcastic in the “drop dead” New York of 1977, “I NY” proved to be a monstrous success (maybe in part because it did seem sarcastic).

Hints of the “What happens” campaign to come were nowhere to be seen in R&R’s first ideas. During 2000, the “Vegas Freedom Party” campaign used a “What you want, when you want” tagline. Then, following September 11, 2001, an idea centered around “Vegas Talking” and past-his-prime celebrity Don Rickles was scrapped before it was even implemented.

Probably a good thing too. Survey results published last year by TaglineGuru estimated that around 80 percent of cities with more than 25,000 people have or are actively trying to develop a tagline or motto. The odds on success are not in their favor. For every “What happens” triumph there are countless failures such as “You’re going to love it here” (New Hampshire), “Get in on it” (Baltimore), and “Come see for yourself” (New Jersey, and previously West Virginia). And while the Vegas success is likely responsible for much of this destination tag-lining boom, it appears not many locales (or their agents) are doing even the most perfunctory case study of the idol they hope(d) to emulate.

The initial reception to the “What happens” campaign should have immediately indicated its potential for greatness. In a June 2005 recounting of the unveiling of the “What Happens” commercial, R&R creative director Randy Snow told the Las Vegas Business Press, "When we first showed that spot here in the conference room there was dead silence.”

An icy reception indicates potential greatness because one of the first rules of destination sloganing should be: If it doesn’t alienate somebody, it probably isn’t going to engage anybody. People move to and visit places because the location fits their requirements, but just as many people avoid places because they don’t fit. In other words, visitors choose Texas because “it’s like a whole other country” just as others don’t choose Texas because it is like a whole other country. Texas’ slogan, like Vegas’, takes a stand about itself and sticks to its guns. But Baltimore’s “Get in on it”? This doesn’t compel in either direction, which means it won’t compel at all.

One of the most common killers of an engaging community slogan or motto is the community itself. Too close to the product, the community forgets that it is aiming to create a perception for others and not an affirmation about how it perceives itself. Think a Vegas resident has any interest in being told that everything happening in his home stays in his home?

After the boardroom’s silent reception to the “What happens” spots, the campaign was taken out and tested in California. The reaction? It received an over two-thirds favorable rating across all demographics. Despite the initial hometown reception, the tagline was a hit.

Almost certainly due in part to Las Vegas’ rebranding, the city hosted a record 38.5 million visitors in 2005 and 39.1 are projected for 2006, with visitors in the lucrative 30 to 39 age range increasing from 16 percent to 20 percent of all visitors

The unstoppable marketing tagline has hit a unique snag though. A snag made possible only by the very astounding success of the campaign itself.

Though it makes considerable sense to audiences when Las Vegas commercials speak of “happening here” and it’s obvious what “here” is when one is actually in Vegas, the truth is that most people use the phrase incorrectly as “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” A simple Google search comparing usage of the two phrases clearly demonstrates this, with “Happens in Vegas” producing 137,000 search results to “Happens here” at 36,400.

This wouldn’t be a huge problem except that many of the people using the “Happens in Vegas” version of the tagline aren’t “just people.” Not long after the introduction of the official line three years ago, LVCVB and R&R began fighting trademark battles against everyone from the Las Vegas Hilton to a California t-shirt maker named “Dorothy” to the Palms casino, which creatively individualized its version: “What happens at the Palms never happened.”

Las Vegas’ next goal? The LVCVA has stated its intention to increase its convention visitor volume to 20 percent of the city’s total by 2009. The LVCVA also indicates that 2006 will see a new brand campaign with this objective in mind. May we suggest, “What happens on the expense account stays on the expense account”?


Abram Sauer lives in New York City.

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