There’s a fine line between what some might deem edgy and what some might find insensitive.
Out with the old. In with the new.
That’s the main idea behind The Palms Casino Resort’s latest marketing campaign, “From Dust to Gold,” which debuted last week to herald the 17-year-old Las Vegas property’s massive $620-million renovation in progress.
“Destroy the old. Create the new,” a tagline from the campaign declares. And “destroy” they do.
Over the course of two minutes, the extended version of the campaign’s spot features people wielding gilded baseball bats and crowbars, Molotov cocktails, and chainsaws, all while carnivorous Doberman Pinschers run down hallways and explosions erupt throughout the property.
But is the campaign’s relentless focus on violence and destruction a bit too much?
It depends on whom you ask, but it’s certainly something to consider, especially for a destination that just saw the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history take place only eight months ago.
“I have a mixed feeling about this ad campaign,” Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the SC Johnson College of Business. “It appears to be about revitalizing the brand. On the one hand, glorifying violence and destroying property to make a point seems gratuitous at best and irresponsible and crass at worst.”
Granted, there are no guns pictured in the campaign videos, but there are plenty of explosions. Close-up shots of a fear-stricken room service attendant speeding through the hotel’s corridors with a massive golden chainsaw on his cart don’t necessarily lighten the mood, either. The spot ends with a close-up of a Damien Hirst art piece that consists of a dismembered tiger shark, suspended into three pieces and serving as the centerpiece of a new bar.
Another hospitality marketing professor, Makarand Mody of Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, echoed Dev’s comments.
“I think some of the images they used in the video were a little insensitive, I think, from the perspective of particularly what happened in Las Vegas last year,” Mody said. “It could have been more subtly executed.
Another advertising executive didn’t necessarily find the films unsettling or insensitive. In fact, he drew parallels from the campaign to the popularity of Anger Rooms, places where people are encouraged to, well, revel in the cathartic release of being able to physically destroy inanimate objects.
“The Dust to Gold commercial is dramatically expressing the idea of creative destruction and evokes the emotional release that has made Anger Rooms popular once again,” said Faris Yakob, co-founder of creative consultancy Genius Steals. “In that, I think it works well, but there are a couple of elements that I think will jar.”
If anything, perhaps the most insensitive part about the Dust to Gold campaign is its emphasis on destroying the old, which Yakob noted, “is somewhat insensitive considering the U.S. has an aging population that is famously not well represented in advertising, despite being the most valuable consumer segment in general, and especially Las Vegas casinos.” In the extended version of the film, there’s just a fleeting glimpse of an older woman kissing a large sum of bills.
The Story Behind the Campaign
When asked if The Palms and its creative agency, AKQA Portland and New York, pre-tested the spots to see how consumers might feel about them, Jon Gray, The Palms general manager, said they did not. They did, however, do “significant brand and stakeholder research, and guest interviews.” The Palms and AKQA began working on the campaign just five months ago, three months after the shooting took place in Las Vegas.
Mody said that for brands today, it’s especially crucial to pre-test any and all ads. “It’s almost a necessity to be a little more careful about some of the things that they say,” Mody said. “In this case, it has to do with what happened in Las Vegas.” He wondered if The Palms and its creative agency ever had any discussions about the topic during the creative process.
Gray said that the team was very careful about approaching the destruction depicted in the campaign.
“We really wanted to highlight the beauty of the destruction process to create the new, and we were sensitive to that in how we approached it,” Gray said. “The couple is enjoying themselves. We really wanted to make sure there was no sense of anger in that.”
He added that the campaign alluded to a famous quote from artist Pablo Picasso, saying, “Every act of creation is first and act of destruction.”
Directed by an Academy Award-winning Swedish cinematographer, Linus Sandgreen, From Dust to Gold is meant to be a glamorous, highly stylized take on the literal rebirth of one of Las Vegas’ most popular casino hotels, one that had certainly seen better days when it first opened in 2001.
In its prime, The Palms was the epicenter of Vegas nightlife, even though it was off the Strip, thanks to its popular nightclubs and celebrity appeal with stars like Britney Spears and MTV’s The Real World. After dealing with financial woes, the property was finally sold to Station Casinos, owners of Red Rock Resorts, for $312.5 million in 2016.
The Palms is promoting the From Dust to Gold campaign digitally, via social media and with media partners such as Vice and Hypebeast, and the ads are also running extensively on local TV. The company hasn’t disclosed the cost of the campaign but it’s clear it’s an important one to the brand.
“The campaign has to do a lot of heavy lifting,” Gray said. “It had to articulate the story of how The Palms, the entire property, has undergone this massive construction and redevelopment project and tell people there’s a lot of new stuff, but also more to come.”
It Is Vegas, After All
Las Vegas isn’t like most other destinations when it comes to marketing itself. This is the town where marketing slogans like “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and competing casino resort The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas’ tagline is “Just the right amount of wrong.”
In other words, the city and its mega casino resorts have always had a reputation for marketing themselves in provocative ways.
And that’s something to be taken into consideration here, Dev noted. “However, it is Las Vegas where shock and awe are often required to differentiate one brand from the others, so this approach may appeal to The Palm’s core customers,” he said.
Since the October 1 shooting, Las Vegas has also seen its visitor numbers decline, but the numbers seem to be bouncing back slightly. During the month of October 2017, the city saw a 4.2 percent decline in visitors. For the year-to-date up to March, visitor volume is down 1.6 percent according to the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority.
It’s a pivotal time for the destination in terms of getting more visitors to come, and having memorable marketing campaigns to draw travelers’ interests would, theoretically, help.
Still, “If it were me, I would find a different way to make the same point,” Dev said of The Palms’ approach. He also wondered if, in The Palms’ attempt to be provocative, it missed the mark with this campaign, not necessarily because of the destructive imagery, but because it wasn’t thought-provoking in a way that necessarily emphasized the brand.
“From my understanding of the Las Vegas market, where I have done multiple projects, The Palms has always positioned itself with a unique attitude that was bold, brash, sexy, and over the top,” Dev explained. “That doesn’t come through for me in this campaign.”
As much as The Palms wants to focus on the new and obliterate the old, does it do so at the expense of destroying any brand equity it once had or has?
“If we removed the brand name for this ad, would we know it was The Palms? I’m not sure we would,” Dev said. “There’s really nothing that screams ‘The Palms’ about it. That then, may be the fatal flaw in this ad campaign.”
Gray, for one, doesn’t think so, and he also worked previously at The Palms from 2005 to 2012.
“It evokes an emotional reaction right away,” Gray said of the campaign. “It’s really refreshing. I’ve only gotten positive feedback and it nods to the guests we used to have.”
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Photo credit: A scene from the "From Dust to Gold" campaign features a couple taking baseball bats and crowbars to the hotel. The Palms via Youtube