Las Vegas, NV

How Las Vegas Created The Best City Slogan in History

Ash Jurberg

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Anyone who has ever visited Las Vegas has used the line, “What happens here, stays here.”

Known for its excesses — gambling, drinking, partying — there is a reason Las Vegas is nicknamed Sin City. It is the place where anything can and often does happen. Fortunes won and lost, drunken weddings performed by Elvis, partying until sunrise at nightclubs. Vegas is like Disneyland for adults. But it wasn’t always like that.

The now-iconic line was actually devised for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) by an advertising company in a bid to grow visitor numbers. The line that has become synonymous with fun and freedom is perhaps one of advertising’s best ever slogans. And one that completely transformed the city, enticing a younger crowd and building a nightclub industry that boosted the city’s coffers while creating a new mantra — anything goes.

The Brief

LVCVA gave its advertising agency R&R partners the brief in 2003 to create an emotional bond between Las Vegas and its customers. To differentiate it from any other major city in the USA.

R&R — an ironic name for the agency given the client they represent — focused on the word freedom.

They wanted visitors to do, see, and feel things that they wouldn’t do at home. Be a different person; try different things. Leave their life behind, even for a few days. That could mean having an expensive drink, talking to a stranger at a bar, gambling, attending an extravagant show, or, yes, even get married by the King.

Anything that was beyond your “ordinary” life — that would give you not only freedom but also empowerment. Vegas was about finding a release from day to day life.

Having focused on the emotion, they needed a slogan that perfectly encapsulated that.

“What happens here, stays here.”

This line tied perfectly into the feelings of the country at the time. It was soon after 9/11 and tourism was well down. The stock market was tanking, and casino revenues were suffering. People needed an outlet and Vegas could provide the solution. They would use this new slogan in a campaign to remarket the city from a family destination to the ultimate adult playground. The ultimate let your hair down, do anything, getaway.

R&R CEO, Billy Vasilliadis, said of the slogan, “No one gives you this. Las Vegas is a unique experience. This is the ultimate adult freedom, and that’s still the core of what drives us — the idea that this is the only true adult freedom in the world.”

The campaign launched in early 2003 with a broad target market — 25 to 54-year-olds earning over $40,000 a year.

The campaign immediately generated excitement and mystique and was a success from the outset. A USA Today survey named the campaign the “most effective” of 2003 and as the slogan took off the Advertising Age termed it “a cultural phenomenon.”

Entrenched in Pop Culture

A slogan or campaign is a success if it can become part of pop culture — referenced across multiple channels and forums. There is no doubt that the Vegas slogan has done this and more.

The campaign got initial assistance when the NFL banned it. The plan was to launch during the 2003 Superbowl, but the NFL thought Las Vegas was too closely associated with gambling and blocked the ad. Ironically this only helped create media buzz and generate free PR for Las Vegas.

Within weeks of the campaign's debut in February 2003, the line was being referenced on news alerts, late-night TV shows, and Saturday Night Live sketches. This was before the use of social media and ensured viral-like reach for the campaign.

The buzz and references haven’t stopped and are quite diverse.

Laura Bush, the wife of President George W Bush, quoted the line on Jay Leno’s Tonight show, highlighting the enormous reach of the slogan. It has since been popularised in an Usher song, the trilogy of Hangover movies, and even became the name of a film in 2008 — What Happens in Vegas.

That is quite a broad range of personalities and media reinforcing the slogan and to an extensive section of potential consumers. Seventeen years after its launch there are no signs of it slowing down. One only has to look at the thousands of What Happens Here memes and merchandise online to see that this line is never going away. There is even a meme generator you can use.

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Image: created by the author using a meme generator

The Success

All the above is great, but the LCVCA still needed to get results. And they certainly achieved that.

  • Visitor numbers surged after the campaign launch, from 35.5 million in 2003; to 37.3 million in 2004; 38.5 million in 2005; and 39.7 million in 2012.
  • Now more than 41 million visitors go to Las Vegas each year to fill its 150,000 hotel rooms. Vegas enjoys a room occupancy rate of 90% — this is 20% above the industry average.
  • In 2007, Las Vegas was ranked the second hottest brand in the USA, second only to Google.
  • Forbes magazine named the slogan number one best destination marketing campaign ever.
  • In 2011, the slogan was inducted into Adweek’s Madison Avenue’s Advertising Walk of Fame.
  • It broadened the appeal of Las Vegas beyond gambling, attracting a younger crowd which resulted in the nightclub boom. Of the top 10 top-grossing nightlife venues in the United States, seven are in Las Vegas.

A Change in 2020

It is one of the most famous slogans of all time, but after seventeen years it underwent a slight modification. LVCVA felt that the slogan needed to evolve after such a long time.

In January 2020, the slogan was changed to “What Happens Here, Only Happens Here.

“We knew we had to hang on to the capital that was in the original iconic slogan,” Vassiliadis said.

The belief is that with more sharing on social media of Vegas activity, things no longer “stay” in Vegas. So the shift was made to highlight that things can “only” happen in Vegas. If you want to do any of the activities now being seen on social, there was only one place to do them.

The new campaign was launched with acts such as Aerosmith, Christina Aguilera, and Shania Twain featuring, but the early feedback has been mixed.

It will be interesting to see if this slight tweak eventually connects with consumers or if they continue to use the same slogan made famous over nearly two decades. It can be hard to alter a much loved and utilized slogan, and I will watch with interest to see how this new campaign tracks.

Whatever slogan is used, this article has made me want to book my next Vegas trip. Time for freedom!

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