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September 15, 2019

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A look back at the advertising magic of ‘What Happens Here, Stays Here’

'What Happens Here, Stays Here'


A shot from a “What Happens Here, Stays Here” TV commercial.

Click to enlarge photo

A shot from a "What Happens Here, Stays Here" TV commercial.

Las Vegas commercial

In the fall of 2001, Jeff Candido and his wife, Sophie, took a quick trip to Lake Havasu, Ariz. The couple certainly deserved a break. Candido had just teamed with his creative partner Jason Hoff at R&R Partners in Las Vegas on an ad campaign to promote the city with a previously unexplored theme.

The concept was a counterpoint to Las Vegas’ ill-suited effort to promote itself as a family destination, a campaign that fizzled around the same time the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park was packed away in 2000. The campaign was “Vegas Stories” with the tagline, “What Happens Here, Stays Here.”

But “What Happens Here, Stays Here” was not an easy sell. The original commercials were submitted for review for the upcoming Super Bowl in the hopes of debuting in front of hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, but were tersely turned back by the NFL. The league, happy to roll out a large complement of beer ads during the game, refused to air anything that even gave a sniff of gambling or Las Vegas resorts built on such. So the allergic-to-gambling league sent a letter of rejection to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and to R&R Partners.

The campaign would be unveiled to a national audience anyway, as the NFL had unwittingly provided months of free media publicity with its rejection of the said-to-be-risqué commercials. By the time Jeff and Sophie, who at the time was an R&R account manager, headed off for Lake Havasu, the first set of new “Vegas Stories” commercials had been summarily vetted and market-tested many times over. Customers liked them. The product was finished. But none of the commercials had yet been unleashed on potential Las Vegas tourists across the country.

Playing tourists themselves, Jeff and Sophie sipped on a couple of plastic, yard-tall margarita containers as they moseyed in and out of gift shops at the small resort town. They cut into a shop filled with the same sort of memorabilia you’d find at a retail kiosk at the Fremont Street Experience.

“We walk in, and we saw this T-shirt, ‘What Happens in Lake Havasu, Stays in Lake Havasu,’ ” remembers Candido, at the time a 24-year-old advertising writer, who is now a senior copywriter at international advertising agency Deutsch in LA. “I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ It was nervous breakdown time.”

The campaign and resulting commercials had already survived an obstacle course just to be produced. Even R&R chief Billy Vassiliadis, whose company has long been retained by the LVCVA to promote and market the city, was not initially convinced of their appeal. In Candido’s mind, even a hint of potential trademark infringement might derail the entire project.

“We had enough people already who were nervous for the political reaction to it,” Candido recalls. “If they found any reason, they would have tipped the scale against us. I said to Sophie, ‘We’re not telling anyone about this.’ ”

What happened in Lake Havasu did stay in Lake Havasu, and over the next decade “What Happens Here, Stays Here” and its sister slogan, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” have become two of the most powerful marketing phrases in the history of advertising.

On Monday, the slogan was announced as one of two winners named to the 2011 annual Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in New York City. The slogan commanded 54 percent of the public voting. The persistent tagline was in competition with such familiar slogans as Capital One’s “What’s in Your Wallet?” (which came in second place with 11 percent of the vote), Nike’s “Just Do It,” Folgers’ “The Best Part of Waking Up Is Folgers in Your Cup,” and American Express’ “Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

It will be permanently enshrined on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame, located between 42nd and 50th streets in New York City, the advertising industry’s version of Hollywood and Vine.

Playing off a proven winner, R&R and the LVCVA just last month unveiled a new batch of “WHHSH” (the campaign now being boiled to an acronym) ad spots. One is a traditional “What Happens Here” theme, with a young Asian professional sitting at a cubicle, listening to hip-hop music through headphones and watching a slide show of his rowdy trip to Vegas. Another is in the new “Know the Code, Protect the Moment” subcategory, with a young woman being ostracized for tweeting her Vegas experiences, thus breaking the “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” code of honor.

“Once we hit on this phrase, it just blew up,” Candido says.

Did it ever. As the campaign approaches its 10th year at the forefront of advertising, those who were instrumental in developing and launching it take a look back at “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” the slogan that almost never was:

The concept

For generations there has been an essence of “What Happens Here, Stays Here.” Traveling salesmen often used a variation of that theme, “What Happens on the Road, Stays on the Road” being the most common.

“I remember, one of the truths was, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of vacation stuff that happens in Vegas, but nobody is really showing that in commercials,’ ” says Hoff, now an associate creative director and writer at R/GA in New York. “Some of what happens, you can’t really show or don’t want to show, and the challenge was how we would tell those stories.”

But there was no “burning bush” moment when either Candido or Hoff arrived at the phrase that became a pop-culture phenomenon. Hoff recalls sitting in a “conference-room atmosphere,” with several members of the R&R team. He and Hoff had written down many versions of the same idea when “What Happens Here, Stays Here” popped.

“I’d have to say it was probably sitting around a table in the R&R building,” Candido recalls. “We would sort of go around to Starbucks, here and there, working on it. But if I were to bet — and that would be appropriate — I would say it was in a conference room somewhere, with notepads in front of us.”

The reluctance

Some very influential Las Vegas figures were reluctant to move forward with both the campaign and the now-famous phrase. That list includes former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, an executive with Harrah’s Entertainment at the time the commercials launched. Vassiliadis himself was skeptical, and even his wife, Rosemary, was not convinced. Las Vegas resort officials wondered why the first set of commercials did not focus on even a single billion-dollar Strip resort.

The first commercial put to the test depicted a woman in a short skirt and loose blouse flirting with a limousine driver on her way to a hotel. The driver finally activates the partition window to separate him from the passenger. When he lets her out at her destination, she’s performed a complete makeover, looking very mommy and chatting to her child on her cellphone.

“(Former) Mayor Jones called and was not happy,” Vassiliadis says. “I remember talking to her, and her saying, ‘Doesn’t that feel exploitive to you?’ So we tested it with women only, and almost all of them found it empowering. Many, many, many women from around the country have been asked about the spots, and they didn’t see the negative stuff that a lot of us who live here see.”

The testing

“What Happens Here, Stays Here” was likely the most market-tested campaign in R&R and LVCVA history. “We sent out alternatives without the tagline, with just, ‘Only Vegas’ at the end, and time and time again the customers said, ‘It just works better with the tagline,” says Randy Snow, creative director for R&R Partners, who was a member of the R&R executive team that approved “What Happens Here, Stays Here.”

Says Vassiliadis, “I told our (creative team), ‘This might be all well for you, but I have to sell it at a public meeting with public officials and investors.’ It was such a significant departure, and because of that, we did so much research on it. This was very scientific. It was not a gut thing, not at all.”

The movie

In 2008, “What Happens in Vegas” starring Cameron Diaz was released. But it’s not the best adaptation of the tagline, say those who coined the phrase: “It’s funny,” Hoff says, “but personally, I like ‘The Hangover.’ That’s more in tune with, ‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.’ ”

The legacy

Candido and Hoff warn against being identified solely by the slogan that’s stuck with Vegas for nearly a decade — the so-called One Hit Wonder Syndrome that can dog any creative professional.

“That is a fair comparison, and it is something I think about lying awake late at night,” Candido says. “I just have to think and believe I’m lucky enough to have one and I’ve been able to build a good career off that … but every assignment that crosses my desk, I try to do it again, for every client.”

Candido’s most recent account has been a campaign for PlayStation.

“I’ve been successful,” he says, “but certainly there has not been another ‘What Happens Here.’ Not yet.”

The affiliation has only forced Hoff to work more diligently at his craft.

“If I am in a meeting or conference room with people who know my history, they expect a certain level of success out of me. I work a lot harder because I don’t want people to think it was an accident.”

The spin-offs

The phrase’s creators have their own favorite adaptations of the slogan. Candido’s 4-year-old wears a shirt that reads, “What Happens in Preschool, Stays in Preschool.”

And for Hoff? “My niece has a big sign that says, ‘What Happens at Grandma’s House, Stays at Grandma’s House,’ ” he says. “My family gets a big kick out of it. That’s my favorite use, by far.”

The big time

For Vassiliadis, there have been two “golden moments” for the phrase. The first was when former Education Secretary William Bennett said it on “Meet the Press” in 2004. Bennett had been caught on videotape at a slot machine, and told host Tim Russert, “Apparently, ‘What Happens Here, Stays Here’ applies to everyone but me.”

Two years later, Laura Bush responded to Jay Leno’s faux-pestering by telling “The Tonight Show” host, “Jay, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and the audience howled.

“When someone like Laura Bush uses it, you know it is universal,” Vassiliadis says. “When it’s been used as a puzzle on ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ or as a question on ‘Jeopardy!,’ it is universal.”

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