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Las Vegas wants slogan to stay in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – The five-word slogan turned out to be a marketing masterpiece, a mantra that marked the unceremonious end of Las Vegas’ family-friendly era and the full-scale resurrection of Sin City: “What Happens Here Stays Here.”

But keeping those words in Las Vegas has become a contentious matter.

A potentially high-stakes lawsuit is unfolding in federal court in Reno over trademark rights to the famous phrase.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which says it spent $85 million in the last three years to link Las Vegas with the slogan, wants licensing rights to the phrase and its many variants.

The authority is seeking a cease-and-desist order against a California-based clothier that sells racy underwear, as well as baseball caps and sweatpants, reading “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas!” in local hotels and gift stores.

The clothing company, acting without permission from the tourism authority, managed to get federal trademark approval for the phrase earlier this year.

The manufacturer, Pure Pleasure of Placerville, plans to sell clothes carrying variations on the phrase – such as “What Happens on Spring Break Stays on Spring Break!”

Las Vegas wants to put a stop to it. But with licensing rights worth potentially millions of dollars on the line, the clothing company is fighting back in court, arguing that Las Vegas is hardly the first place in the world where people have promised to look the other way.

There’s that old saying among traveling salesmen: “What happens on the road stays on the road.”

And the one from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: “What you see here, what you hear here, whom you see here, stays here.”

The clothing company’s lawyers also cite a sign in a now-defunct Cambridge, Mass., tavern that declared, “What Happens Here, Stays Here.”

Finally, there are all the variations on the phrase used in Las Vegas itself, such as the pitch used by one major resort-casino: “What Happens at the Palms Never Happened.”

As zany as the legal arguments might seem, the case is a powerful indication of just how valuable the phrase has become since Las Vegas launched the campaign in late 2002.

It is widely seen as a chief reason Las Vegas hit an all-time record of 37.4 million visitors last year, and is projected to reach 38.2 million in 2005.

“It’s only a few years old, but it’s basically considered one of the most effective slogans for tourism ever,” said Daniel R. Fesenmaier, a professor at Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, who evaluates the effectiveness of tourism advertising.

“The beauty of it is that it’s a definitive statement of what Vegas is all about, but it also leaves something to the individual’s imagination as to what exactly it means,” Fesenmaier said.

When Las Vegas’ effort in the 1990s to market itself as family-friendly produced less than a bonanza, the new slogan became “a very effective way of announcing to the world, `Hey, we’re Vegas, and let’s go back to who we really are,”’ Fesenmaier said.

Even the clothing company’s lawyer, Daniel Ballard, said the “What Happens Here” ads are “absolutely fabulous.”

But Ballard said in a telephone interview from Sacramento, Calif., that the success of the television campaign was insufficient grounds to justify stopping his client from using its version of the phrase.