Las Vegas Sun

February 16, 2019

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Will Vegas advertising that worked before, work again?

Return to an iconic theme follows ad campaign tied specifically to the recession


Leila Navidi

Sean Corbett, Director of Digital Marketing, sits during a brainstorming meeting for the LVCVA account at the office of R&R Partners in Las Vegas Friday, Aug. 21.

R&R Partners brainstorming meeting

During a brainstorming meeting for the LVCVA account, Arnie DiGeorge, from left, group creative director, Dave Kersey, associate media director, Dedee Orchard, designer, Stephanie Shum, assistant account executive, and Sean Corbett, director of digital marketing share ideas in a conference room inside the offices of R&R Partners in Las Vegas Friday, Aug. 21. Launch slideshow »

Silent Car

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is bringing back the"What happens here, stays here" campaign.

Reporting from Las Vegas

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is bringing back the "What happens here, stays here" campaign.

Free Will

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is bringing back the "What happens here, stays here" campaign.

Mistress of Disguise

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is bringing back the "What happens here, stays here" campaign.

Fortune Teller

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is bringing back the "What happens here, stays here" campaign.

The cutting room floor at R&R

During the months of brainstorming that came up with the tag line, “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” dozens of other pitches were considered — and rejected. Among them:

  • The stories are true.
  • The secrets are yours.
  • You’ll know what to do.
  • You know how it goes.
  • You know you want to.
  • Get away with it.
  • What you admit … is up to you.
  • Your stories. Your secrets.
  • You just can’t tell.
  • Share a secret.
  • Who’s to say?
  • The secret’s out.
  • Imagine that.
  • Stranger than fiction.
  • You’ll know the truth.
  • They wouldn’t believe you anyway.
  • Leave it here.
  • Don’t tell a soul.
  • You’ll know the real story.
  • Who can say?
  • Let them wonder.
  • If you go, you’ll know.
  • Fill in the details.
  • You may want to keep it to yourself.
  • Try not to tell.
  • The neighbors don’t need to know.
  • The kind of fun you’d rather not talk about.
  • Get in on the secret.
  • Get in on it.
  • It’s all you’ll want to say.
  • Your secret is safe.
  • Enough said.
  • Let them guess.
  • You won’t soon forget.
  • Who needs to know?
  • You’re in on the secret.
  • You’re in on the story.
  • Be part of the story.
  • Say no more.
  • We’ll let you tell the story.
  • The tales you could tell.

For an ad man with an ounce of imagination, Las Vegas is rich with sales material — cheering gamblers, sexy nightclubs, celebrity-chef restaurants, haute couture boutiques and stunning stage productions.

But none of these would be highlighted in Las Vegas’ most successful advertising campaign. Instead, the commercials would only tease, thick with innuendo, to unspoken tourist experiences.

“What happens here, stays here” sold Vegas for years.

When business plummeted in the recession, new ads appeared. “Vegas right now,” the new ads said. “Crazy times call for crazy fun,” others said. These ads respected the difficult times. There were sensibilities to take into account.

But now, with the stakes never higher and the town against the ropes, tourism officials are returning to the message that sold Vegas in the best of times.

The “What Happens Here” campaign has been pulled off the shelf and put back on TV, and more ads are being produced.

To know why the city is returning to an old campaign to help pull itself out of the recession requires an understanding of what has happened over the past decade.

• • •

Throughout the 1990s the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority ran advertising resembling a chamber of commerce brochure, with pools, golf courses and posed showgirls. The message was simple and straightforward: Las Vegas is more than just gambling.

The ads were urgently needed. Las Vegas-style tribal and riverboat casinos were spreading nationwide, making a once-exclusive attraction an easily accessible commodity.

So the ad gurus grasped for a bolder, more emotional message, hoping to sell Vegas the way Nike sold shoes and McDonald’s sold burgers — by setting a scene and telling a story.

It was a radical idea for the tourism industry but well-known to consumer products companies.

In 1998 R&R Partners, the advertising agency that has been selling Las Vegas since 1979, decided to frame Las Vegas as an experience versus a product. The agency launched 18 months of surveys and began conducting dozens of focus group interviews to define those experiences.

On everyone’s lips were the recurring themes of adult Disneyland, escapism, letting loose. So R&R set out to create ads that evoked a feeling of “adult freedom.”

The resulting television spots were all over the map.

One ad, that aired during the 2000 presidential campaign, depicted a smarmy fellow representing the “Freedom Party.” Another commercial showed a man holed up in an arctic igloo, wistfully pasting photos of himself onto postcards of Vegas. In another, truck mudflap girls came alive and jumped off one vehicle and onto another bound for Vegas.

R&R tried something different in 2001, enlisting award-winning documentary filmmaker and commercial ad director Errol Morris to film ads featuring interviews with tourists in Las Vegas, including an elderly English couple gushing about over-the-top resorts. Morris was intrigued by the assignment and filmed at least seven television spots that year.

Some of those never ran because of 9/11, which forced R&R to switch gears and run more sober ads. The agency surveyed consumers about what they most associated with Las Vegas. The overwhelming answer: entertainment. That led R&R to the Frank Sinatra vault and a song, commissioned by Chrysler, that had never been broadcast. R&R showcased the song, “It’s time for you,” in an ad featuring Las Vegas entertainers including Siegfried & Roy, Wayne Newton and Rita Rudner taking up the song where Sinatra left off.

Over the next several weeks, R&R would extend the Sinatra theme by overlaying Sinatra sayings with images of the entertainer in Las Vegas.

By the summer of 2002, after business had begun to recover, R&R had returned to tongue-in-cheek irreverence to sell Las Vegas. The Sinatra ads gave way to spots by comedian Don Rickles that aired through the remainder of the year.

Behind the scenes, focus groups hired by R&R to watch and comment on the commercials found these ads more memorable than the travelogue ads — but said they still didn’t generate the kind of excitement Las Vegas represented.

Focus group participants started sharing their own Vegas experiences — unique, specific narratives compared with the generic experiences presented in TV commercials to date. R&R decided to bring those ideas to the screen and in 2002, while Rickles was still barking at tourists to experience Las Vegas, the firm started gathering story ideas, using the focus groups and a national contest to generate interesting tales of Vegas getaways.

“We got some toe-curling stuff,” R&R Executive Vice President Rob Dondero said. “It validated our theory that people have their own preconceived notions and perceptions about Vegas and wanted to share them.”

The creative team worked on developing tourist vignettes that hinted at intriguing Las Vegas experiences that would entice a broad cross-section of America.

The campaign would also need a catchphrase to tie all the stories together. A pair of 20-something copywriters, Jeff Candido and Jason Hoff, worked on the assignment for weeks, coming up with a list of possibilities, including “What Happens Here, Stays Here.”

They didn’t know at the time that it would headline Las Vegas advertising for years to come and become ingrained in pop culture.

When they pitched it to their boss, Randy Snow, there were no fireworks or popping champagne corks.

It sounded good but had to be mulled over, said Snow, R&R’s executive creative director. “What Happens Here” went on a best-ideas list that was winnowed down to a handful of phrases.

Dozens of similar tag lines, such as “If you go, you’ll know” and “Get in on the secret” didn’t make the cut, though ad bosses continued to noodle around with variations on the same theme after the campaign’s launch.

“We’re ad guys, so we second-guess ourselves all the time,” Snow said. “Until it’s out there, you never really know.”

Within two years the copywriters, among a team of more than 40 at R&R that has worked on the Las Vegas marketing campaign over the years, had jumped to big agencies in Boston and New York.

The “What Happens Here” campaign would be anchored by three ads — a woman who enters a limo in a slinky dress and gets out at the airport wearing business attire, her hair now in a bun; a woman rushing off to a business meeting after a quickie marriage to a man she just met, and a woman who writes a postcard, has second thoughts and smudges her message with her finger.

“No picture can depict what’s going on in my mind right now,” said one member of a focus group who previewed the ads for R&R.

Focus groups liked most of the ads (one that depicted a mother getting her tattoo removed didn’t generate enough laughs to make the final cut). Still, R&R bosses were nervous.

Days before airing the ads in January 2003 the agency showed them at a San Francisco shopping mall to gauge viewer response.

They especially wanted feedback from women. Were the spots offensive? Uncomfortable? Women, R&R said, viewed the ads as empowering.

Still, R&R CEO Billy Vassiliadis questioned the strategy. The Strip was home to billions of dollars in resorts and not a one was depicted in the commercials, he said. He showed them to hotel executives, thinking they’d want the campaign retooled.

Instead, they gave it a thumbs-up and the campaign hit the airwaves to resounding success. The What Happens Here tag line became a media sensation, a ubiquitous punch line.

In the campaign’s first year, USA Today’s consumer poll Ad Track ranked the Las Vegas ads as the nation’s most effective ad message, ahead of Miller Lite, Campbell’s soup and Coca-Cola. Brandweek named visitors authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter and Vassiliadis Marketers of the Year in 2004 — beating out travel marketers nationwide.

“These are stories — and people love stories,” said former Brandweek reporter Mike Beirne. “They manage to appeal to someone’s emotions in 30 seconds, which a lot of ads fail to do.”

R&R has run out of wall and desk space for all of its industry accolades, instead using awards as door handles and office decorations. Dozens of obelisk-shaped ADDYs — the Oscars of the American Advertising Foundation — form the base of a water fountain that flows in the company’s atrium.

But while the major Las Vegas resorts were happy with the success of “What Happens Here,” the desire to show off their assets remained strong. And there was concern, too, that Las Vegas’ rapid transformation into a luxury destination brimming with high-end shopping and gourmet dining hadn’t permeated the nation’s psyche. Research also unveiled that many consumers were intrigued by Las Vegas but wanted some pointers on how to experience it.

In 2005 R&R launched the first of several ads, with different slogans, that were intended to complement “What Happens Here” with subtle references to shopping, dining and entertainment. The first ads, called “Vegas Alibi,” included a spot in which a woman guiltily tells her significant other how she “got wild” with her girlfriends in Vegas, then shows off Ferragamo shoes and Tiffany earrings as evidence. The ad concludes: “Our fabulous shopping can be your alibi.”

In 2008 R&R launched a new set of ads with the slogan, “Your Vegas is showing,” including a spot with a man, acting out his fantasy spy life, who buys alligator shoes in Las Vegas — only to draw suspicious looks back home.

As business worsened in early 2008, the resorts and the LVCVA made more distress calls to R&R.

Brand-building could wait. They wanted their ads to sell rooms.

For many locals, the What Happens Here theme now seemed inappropriate, much as Bud Light’s “real American heroes” campaign seemed shallow and callous after 9/11, forcing the beer company to change its message.

R&R put What Happens Here on ice even though consumers seemed to like the cheeky campaign, but with the intention of returning to it when the economic panic subsided.

“We walked away from it reluctantly,” Snow, the creative director, said.

Just as the events of 9/11 had forced R&R to pull its brand ads and adopt a different approach, the agency would, in response to a downturn in business, shelve already-shot television spots. In one, a gatekeeper in heaven asks a man why the record of his life shows missing information for several weekends in Vegas. In several parodies, people in mundane situations mockingly cite the “What Happens Here” line.

Within days of convening a meeting on how to boost tourism, the agency wrote, filmed and aired no-frills ads featuring a spokesman urging consumers to take a quick trip to Vegas with the message “Vegas right now.” Regrouping in the agency’s camouflage-painted “war room” — an homage to a similar room in former office digs used for lengthy strategy meetings after 9/11 — the agency created humorous, more elaborate renditions of that message. In these spots, a narrator tells viewers that “crazy times call for crazy fun” while people run from bizarre situations.

But the challenge to Las Vegas was far greater than everyone here believed: New focus group research revealed a perception that Las Vegas hotels were closing up shop or virtually empty. Hotel executives were horrified.

Within weeks R&R crafted a publicity stunt, flying 100 residents from the tiny town of Cranfills Gap, Texas, to Las Vegas for an all-expenses-paid vacation. By showing blue-collar folks enjoying high-end shopping and dining, the message was that hotels were still busy and that it was OK for average Americans to take a break in Las Vegas. The agency created mini-documentaries of the residents and their activities on the Las Vegas tourism Web site,, pairing the videos with links to hotels and activities. The Cranfills Gap stunt became local and national news, generating the equivalent of about $5 million in publicity, by some measures.

But further polling showed that people missed the “What Happens Here” ads. And they remembered them well, often relaying the scenes from the old spots in greater detail than ad bosses could.

“They had crisis fatigue,” Snow said.

And so R&R rolled out the pre-recession ads in May. A newer spot is a nod to the economy, depicting a television reporter walking past empty cabanas for a story on the poor economy, then flinging off her jacket, revealing a bikini, and joining a crowd of people partying in a nearby pool.

As with past Las Vegas ads, local critics — including businesspeople whose livelihoods depend on the health of Strip tourism — worry that Las Vegas’ naughty image might not play as well in a downturn.

While some locals worry, R&R’s research indicates that consumers — for all of the country’s problems — appreciate the opportunity to escape and the adults-only message.

As one focus group participant recently put it, “Even though things are crappy, you can still afford to have fun.” “It’s still OK to sin,” another said.

Life, and pool parties, go on in Las Vegas despite the economy, said Todd Gillins, R&R’s research director.

Other What Happens Here ads are yet to come, along with companion spots that offer fake excuses to visit Las Vegas — including “Chinchilli Day,” in which an office worker tells his tightfisted boss about his “cultural obligation” to spend three days in Vegas commemorating a town’s victory in beating back an uprising of pet chinchillas.

These ads are built on additional research that consumers want a get-away from work but are nervous about doing so because of the economy.

Although there’s no firm cause-and-effect relationship between the popularity of Las Vegas and the What Happens Here campaign, there is this correlation: While the campaign ran, tourism swelled and the Strip resorts posted record profits. And R&R’s twice-annual polling of up to 20,000 Americans in major cities has showed that consumers know more about Las Vegas’ high-end offerings, have more positive feelings toward Las Vegas and are more likely to visit.

And while the ad campaign is cheap compared with the hundreds of millions big consumer brands spend on advertising every year, selling Las Vegas is a big bucks effort that reflects the visitor-funded 12 percent tax on hotel rooms that pays for it.

The LVCVA’s post-recession budget of $86 million for fiscal year 2010 is still larger than Las Vegas’ top competitors combined.

The official Las Vegas Web site mentioned in the ads attracts about 570,000 visits per month and generates about 330,000 hotel referrals per month. Between 2 percent and 3 percent of those referrals result in booked business for Las Vegas hotels, according to the visitors authority.

“No city in America has marketed itself as well as Las Vegas,” said Matt Scheckner, executive director of Advertising Week, a nonprofit industry group that this year nominated the slogan for an award. “The slogan transcends the recession. The Yankees are all about winning championships and FedEx is all about trust. People go to Las Vegas to have a good time. It’s on message.”

As long as “What Happens Here” tests well and motivates consumers, R&R says the campaign could last indefinitely.

These are carefully weighed decisions, Beirne said. “Sometimes you don’t want to change something that’s been successful in the past. But you don’t want to wear it out, either.”

Building the Las Vegas brand is a work in progress and can’t be put on hold because of the poor economy, though the ads should produce long-term results, Vassiliadis said.

“We get to sell a great product,” he said. “Can great advertising sell a crappy product? Yeah — once. We’re creating demand for Las Vegas — it’s up to the hotels to bring them back.”

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