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A firm hits jackpot on Las Vegas ads

Campaign phrase enters the lexicon

Las Vegas --As an otherwise predictable Academy Awards show came to a close last month, the host, Billy Crystal, summed up the tame action with a mocking rebuke to the millions of viewers.

‘‘Remember,’’ Crystal said, ’’what happens at the Oscars stays at the Oscars.’’

Back in Las Vegas, Jeff Candido, a 28-year-old advertising copywriter, turned and stared at his wife. When Candido’s phone started ringing moments later with congratulations, you might have thought that he and cowriter Jason Hoff had won one of the golden statuettes.

Eighteen months ago, Candido and Hoff penned a tagline for the city of Las Vegas’ new, risqu´e tourist campaign, ‘‘What Happens Here Stays Here.’’ To Hoff, 26 years old, Crystal’s appropriation of it was ‘‘surreal because it was so random,’’ and proof positive that the campaign had coursed its way into the popular lexicon in a way few ad slogans ever do.

It’s not a new saying, to be sure. From military personnel on leave to actors on location, people have followed this unspoken rule, to avoid responsibility for or assuage guilt over untoward behavior. But its connection to Sin City and its constant utterances across the cultural landscape have advertising experts putting this rendition of it in a league with Wendy’s ‘‘Where’s the beef?’’ and Nike’s Just do it.’’

A USA Today survey named the campaign the ‘‘most effective’’ of 2003, and the trade publication Advertising Age termed it ‘‘a cultural phenomenon.’’ One of the nation’s biggest ad firms, BBD&O, hired Hoff this month from the Las Vegas firm of R&R Partners. And Michael Belch and George Belch, coauthors of ‘‘Advertising and Promotion,’’ plan to use the phrase as a case study in the next edition of their textbook.

‘‘It’s not a totally new phrase, but they’re bringing it into the forefront of public awareness in a new way,’’ said George Belch, chairman of the San Diego State University marketing department.

‘‘They’re trying to generate some excitement and mystique about the Vegas experience, and this does that perfectly.’’

Figuring out beforehand whether an ad slogan is destined to become a part of the vernacular is, in Vegas parlance, a crap shoot. With the ‘‘Where’s the beef?’’ ads, for instance, the cranky delivery of pitchwoman Clara Peller made it funny. The Democratic challenger, Walter F. Mondale, also lifted it to question the substance of President Ronald Reagan’s policies in the 1984 race.

The ‘‘What Happens Here Stays Here’’ tag is the clincher for a series of nationally aired TV ads that tell such uniquely Vegas tales as that of the woman rushing from her quickie wedding back to a conference. The ads ran, coincidentally, as television shows from NBC’s racy hit ‘‘Las Vegas’’ to Bravo’s ‘‘Celebrity Poker’’ were about to heighten awareness of Vegas anyway. Major celebrity news out of Vegas helped the slogan along, including Roy Horn’s tiger injury, Michael Jackson’s indictment, and Britney

Spears’s 55-hour marriage. But on its own, within weeks of the February 2003 ad debut, news anchors, late-night comedians, TV sitcom characters, and even Vegas- bound flight attendants were uttering the phrase. ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ mocked the ads in two skits during one recent episode.

Jay Leno has used the phrase at least six times, most recently in noting that perhaps terrorists wouldn’t attack the city because they’re after publicity, and, ‘‘as you know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’’ Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, in a lighthearted CNN debate with Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman about whose city offers a better lifestyle, quipped, ‘‘You know, Oscar, what they say about Minneapolis: What happens here stays here.’’

To R&R Partners owner Billy Vassiliadis, though, the big event was former Education Secretary William Bennett’s having become embroiled in a scandal last spring about his gambling. After a video of Bennett sitting at a Vegas slot machine hit the news, Bennett griped to both Leno and NBC’s Tim Russert: ‘‘Apparently, ‘what happens here stays here’ applies to everyone but me.’’

‘‘It became this avalanche of people using it,’’ Vassiliadis said. ‘‘I was on the airplane and instead of saying, ‘Have a good time,’ the flight attendant said, ‘And don’t forget, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ ’’

Belch said it’s especially unusual that the campaign is so successful because it markets a destination rather than a product or a service. But Las Vegas spends $60 million a year to have R&R Partners create and place the ads, a sum many times greater than the promotional budgets of other cities and even most states.

Orlando, one of the few US cities that rival Las Vegas as a tourist destination, spends about $11.5 million a year. Boston spends less than $2 million, and does no TV advertising.

With all that money, R&R set Hoff, Candido, and several other writers to the task of finding a new city slogan in summer 2002. Vegas was on the brink of plunging back into its image as an adult playground after a failed effort at rebranding itself as a family destination. Hoff and Candido say they compared their notes one day and noticed they both had a variation on ‘‘What happens here stays here’’ scribbled on their pads. The playful television campaign R&R developed tell ambiguous vignettes that suggest some sort of illicit activity but that leave it to the viewer to decide what happened.

One shows a middle-age woman writing a postcard in Chinese, then blotting out a line she didn’t want folks at home to read.

‘‘We knew we couldn’t show a lot of what people do in Las Vegas on prime-time TV, so the slogan lets them guess,’’ Candido said. Not everyone is enamored of the slogan. Former Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones, now an executive of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., voiced fear that it would characterize the city ‘‘as a place where people come to cheat and steal,’’ although she now says her concerns have been allayed after Vassiliadis promised less racy spots.

Yellowpages.Com CEO Dane Madsen said that very image has hampered his efforts to recruit top-level managers to his company, which is based in the Vegas suburb of Henderson.

Religious conservatives in Las Vegas, too, are unhappy. One church posted on its billboard: ‘‘What happens in Vegas, God knows about.’’ And Lucille Lusk, president of Nevada Concerned Citizens, said the slogan is offensive because it is not true.

The FBI occasionally has demanded hotel guest lists from Vegas resorts, citing national security concerns, Lusk said. Goodman bristled at the criticism.

‘‘Anybody who wouldn’t come to Vegas because they don’t like the slogan, I don’t want them here,’’ Goodman said. ‘‘It’s not a place for little old biddies.’’

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