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The Boston Globe

Business

Shirley Leung

What happens if they can’t tell Vegas from Boston

Michael Nelson/EPA and David L. Ryan/GLobe Staff/File

Ends up, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, and Pat Moscaritolo is learning that the hard way.

Moscaritolo is the head of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, and two weeks ago, while on a trip to Las Vegas to promote Boston as a place for conventions, he did something that seemed like a great idea. He, along with other industry partners, went wild Boston style and set up an elaborate booth emblazoned with the slogan “What Happens In Boston Changes the World.” They even put the phrase on buttons and proudly wore them around Sin City.

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Moscaritolo’s “escapade” didn’t go unnoticed, and trouble has followed him home. He is now being threatened with legal action from his group’s counterpart, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, unless Boston stops using its tagline. Vegas is concerned that Beantown’s phrase sounds too similar to its trademarked slogans: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” and “What happens here, stays here.”

Get this: The lawyers for the Vegas authority believe people will confuse the two cities. The Boston “What Happens” tagline is “likely to cause consumer confusion” and “dilute the distinctiveness” of the Vegas brand, asserted attorney Jeffrey Rugg in a two-page letter to Moscaritolo.

And I thought we were the uptight ones.

The brouhaha required a lawyer for our visitors bureau to write a four-page response, stating the completely obvious.

“Boston is a city of innovation and productivity that positively impacts the world, evoking Boston’s reputation for world class universities, hospitals and technology centers,” explains attorney Andrew Ferren.

Vegas, however, “promotes activities of a sensitive or controversial nature such that knowledge of the activities must stay in Las Vegas for fear of exposure and embarrassment, evoking Las Vegas’s reputation for casinos and adult entertainment.”

Jim Rooney, the head of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, came up with the Boston convention slogan a few years ago. He never thought to trademark it. To avoid a long legal fight, Ferren is proposing to retire our “What Happens” slogan on Jan. 15, after using it one more time at a trade show at the Hynes. Even the “raucous” videos with Deval Patrick and Tom Menino preening for “What Happens” in Boston will disappear, never to be seen again.

But perhaps this would be a good time to pause and consider what has just happened, other than a bunch of lawyers racking up billable hours, which might be the only thing our two cities have in common. You mean to tell me that someone out there may book a trip to Boston when they really want to go to Vegas?

Theirs is a city in the middle of the Nevada desert, with a fake Eiffel Tower, and where Elvis impersonators, showgirls, and the Mob Museum qualify as culture. We are a historic city on the harbor with the I.M. Pei & Partners-designed Hancock Tower, the birthplace of the American Revolution, and home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Museum of Fine Arts.

Not even Sheldon Adelson coming back to build the biggest casino in the world at Suffolk Downs would make us a carbon copy.

Oscar Goodman, the former Vegas mayor and now its chief tourism ambassador, insists Vegas has to put the squeeze on folks who try to capitalize on its catch phrase, one that has helped increase visitors by 10 percent over the past decade to 39.7 million travelers last year.

He said that the convention authority routinely sends out these cease-and-desist letters to offenders, and that it has successfully scared away knockoffs.

“It’s imperative we protect our brand,” said Goodman, whose recent memoir, “Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas,” features a photo of him on the cover nestled between two showgirls while nursing a martini.

Does he really think Boston has something on Vegas?

“I’m not getting into it. Mayor Menino and I are old friends,” replied Goodman.

Appropriately, the original “What Happens” campaign was a cause celebre from the beginning. The Vegas authority had planned to debut the first ad during the 2003 Super Bowl, one that would portray the city as an adult playground. The NFL, however, rejected the spot because at the time it prohibited tourism ads from Vegas or Atlantic City, given the association with gambling.

I mean, who would ever think to bet on football?

Of course, the fact that the NFL forbade the Vegas commercial made the campaign that much more popular.

So what should have happened here?

The legal spat should have just . . . stayed in Vegas.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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