A brief history of 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas'

A look back at one of the most effective ad campaigns in modern history

Vegas sign
(Image credit: (B.S.P.I./Corbis))

Las Vegas' "What Happens Here, Stays Here" slogan is one of the more famous taglines in modern tourism marketing and one of the most quoted, talked about, and recognized ad campaigns in any industry. The phrase has not only been a spark that's helped drive millions of visitors to Sin City, but it's also inspired an Usher song and the trilogy of Hangover movies, been quoted by Laura Bush, closed an Oscar ceremony, and been banned from Super Bowl time slots.

The campaign, which turns 10 this fall, was first cooked up in 2003 at a brainstorming meeting in the Las Vegas tourism department of ad agency R&R Partners. The meeting was sparked by a need to brand Vegas for something other than gambling. A year of research resulted in the following conclusions, as explained in R&R's case study of the campaign:

The emotional bond between Las Vegas and its customers was freedom. Freedom on two levels. Freedom to do things, see things, eat things, wear things, feel things. In short, the freedom to be someone we couldn't be at home. And freedom from whatever we wanted to leave behind in our daily lives. Just thinking about Vegas made the bad stuff go away. At that point the strategy became clear. Speak to that need. Make an indelible connection between Las Vegas and the freedom we all crave.

The result was a decade of ads that create situations around missing information. This allows viewers to fill in the blanks and begin imagining their own Vegas adventures.

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The campaign turns 10

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority runs two types of campaigns: Retail campaigns that encourage direct bookings with a very strong and specific call to action (which are released in the spring) and branding campaigns promoting some variation of "What Happens Here, Stays Here" (which arrive in the fall).

The campaign just finished a nine-month hiatus during which LVCVA introduced a new retail-focused campaign starring a personality called Las Vegasdotcom. The character didn't exactly catch on with viewers and is not guaranteed to return during the 2014 retail advertising period.

The branding ads continued to run in Mexico and the U.K. during this time.

In early September, R&R announced the return of "What Happens Here, Stays Here".

Just mentioning its return generated 15 to 20 calls from media outlets, says Courtney Fitzgerald, public relations manager at LVCVA.

"The plan was always to return with it," explains Fitzgerald. "That's what our research told us people like."

The ad will be not be a review of the last 10 years. It will have an original story line much like the "know the code" narrative in which Vegas visitors are encouraged to not share their friends' shenanigans with the world via social media. (Especially when Price Harry is involved.)

The agency is planning to release a full review of the 10-year campaign in the first week of October. The agency does not disclose how much the campaign costs to run each year.

A decade of Las Vegas tourism

The campaign persisted through the recession following the 2008 banking crisis and the collapse of the real estate bubble, which hit Las Vegas particularly hard.

The annual visitor count fell more than 4 percent in 2008 after reaching a high of 39.2 million visitors in 2007. Visitor numbers have since climbed back past pre-bust levels to a record 39.7 million gamblers, clubbers, and convention attendees in 2012.

The recession also impacted occupancy rates. Citywide occupancy hit a high of 90.4 percent in 2007 before dropping to a low of 80.4 percent in 2010. Occupancy rates continue to recover but have not yet reached the near-perfect balance reached before the recession.

Get ready to laugh

The "What Happens Here, Stays Here" ads make people laugh. And although print and digital assets have been added to the campaigns, video drives the message.

"The heart of the campaign is the video," says Sara Gorgon, an account supervisor at R&R Partners.

R&R shares 15 high-quality videos from the past 10 years on its Vimeo page, but none are available for download. So, we've collected seven videos from campaigns that ran from 2006 to 2013. Many are recordings of TV commercials, so please excuse the poor quality.

This ad from 2006 shows a man trying to pick up girls by testing out different occupations. The message: He's free to be whoever he wants in Vegas.

Posted in 2006, a lawn mower charges his boss $35 extra to keep secret what he saw him to do in Vegas. The ad was criticized for going off strategy, but was comical nonetheless.

Posted in 2007, this ad suggests that even the best-behaved, buttoned-up people can let loose in Vegas.

Posted in 2009, this clever ad turns the recession and Vegas' dropping visitor numbers into a positive for potential guests. A newswoman bemoans the empty cabanas as sign of the times but quickly rushes off camera so she can enjoy private pools and smaller crowds for herself.

This 2011 campaign starred actress Tristen MacDonald, a woman who "broke the code" by tweeting and taking photos. In the ad, she is ostracized for breaking the code by her friends, DJs, and other partygoers.

Posted in 2011, this ad sees a father struggling to explain to his daughter what grown-ups do in Las Vegas.

This rather strange ad ran in the U.K. in May 2013.

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