They call Las Vegas “Disneyland for Adults,” which means that it’s highly artificial, sometimes beautiful, often garish, and engineered to appeal to the immature part of your brain. It reminds me of one specific part of Disneyland – Pleasure Island from the ride Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, the place where boys indulge in too much excess and then turn into jackasses.
The historical appeal of Vegas is gambling. Who doesn’t like to think they can win? And the frisson of hanging out with a mobster or two, well, that’s just part of the thrill of losing your money. Or it was. For a town built on a foundation of vice, today’s Las Vegas has a great deal of appeal for Middle America. Big names here are Rita Rudner and Celine Dion – two artists among the least offensive practitioners of their respective crafts. That’s another side of the city – but it’s not the one everyone talks about.
Instead, Vegas has turned into a real-life version of the 1973 film Westworld, before robot Yul Brynner goes and threatens the wealthy fantasy-seekers. The city’s put out the word to ordinary Americans – good, solid citizens – that this is a place to put their normal lives aside for a few days, and indulge their forbidden desires. Its recent, very successful advertising campaign builds on a promise of guilt-free bacchanalia: “What happens here, stays here.” Its popularity seems to suggest that the average American really want nothing more than the chance to head to the desert and display all the reckless abandon of a 19-year old on Spring Break.
The branding campaign is driven by the need to create “new demand hinged on the knowledge consumers had of what Las Vegas has to offer: world class shopping, dining, entertainment, clubs, golf, etc. – MORE than just gaming.” Okay, I get it. I came for the craps, I stayed for the Wolfgang Puck and Armani. But what do the ads really say?
The spots depict various scenarios of all types of people who come to Vegas to let their freak flag fly. One features a group of somber women in a limo, obviously returning from a bachelorette party. One by one, they begin laughing hysterically at one bridesmaid who seems embarrassed at an offscreen indiscretion until she joins them in laughing at herself. The spot concludes with the tagline, “What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” The campaign makes the thrill of Vegas seem accessible to everyone.
Let’s be very clear about this, in case you haven’t seen the ads. The approach is not “Come to Vegas and win big.” It’s not “Come to Vegas, for the dining and shopping experience of your life.” Nope. It’s pretty blunt. “Come to Vegas and have no-string-attached indiscriminate sex with complete strangers! Experience the thrill of waking up the Morning After in somebody else’s hotel room!”
Anybody can be a skank anywhere, anytime. Vegas says, “Come on over, let loose, and it’ll be our little secret.”
Vegas is also a big convention town, and that message doesn’t necessarily thrill the business crowd who claim they would prefer a more straight-laced marketing approach. But regular folks seem to love it. Just mention “Vegas” in casual conversation and people will say the catch phrase, “What Happens….”. They say it with a certain amount of humor, with a nudge and a wink.
But it’s not just a joke.
One night earlier this week, I was sitting in a Vegas hotel bar with some business colleagues. A co-worker alerted me that there was a “couch full of prostitutes” behind me. When I turned to look at the group of young women, it struck me: How could you tell the difference? In most American cities, it’s pretty easy to discern the dividing line between a professional trollop and a young gal just showing off a little skin. In Las Vegas, that line seems completely erased.
Over the course of human history, there have been periods of flexible social norms in Western Society, from Ancient Rome to Victorian England to the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties. It seems that our true natures will not be denied. It’s tougher to be a kid today; they have to grow up faster and face greater challenges earlier than they once did. But you still desire the innocent fun of childhood and so, as an adult, you go to Disneyland to be a kid. There also seems to be something else within may of us that will also not be denied. You’re supposed to be mature, get married, have kids, be upstanding. But nature calls.
When it does, you can go to Vegas to be Traci Lords – or to sleep with her.