Live Wire Fund

Near the end of World War II businessmen in Las Vegas began planning for the post-war economy. Much of the town's prosperity had been built upon the payrolls of the 25,000 civilian and military employees of the Las Vegas Gunnery School and Basic Magnesium, Incorporated. Realizing that both would soon shut down, community leaders scrambled to replace the income derived from the payrolls of those employees. Knowing that Americans had accumulated substantial savings during the war and likely were eager to spend, notably on tourism, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce developed a promotional campaign to make Las Vegas known as an appealing tourist town.

The Chamber asked each business to contribute between one and five percent of its gross income to a promotional fund. The resort hotels pledged to match whatever the rest of the community could raise up to $50,000. Although the Chamber did not quite reach their goal of $100,000, the $84,000 raised in 1945 represented about four dollars per capita, the highest figure for a promotional fund by any community in the country, and it increased to well over $100,000 over the next decade. Contributing businessmen gained the label of "Live Wires" as a way to acknowledge them as forward-looking community leaders.

While many people played important roles, Maxwell Kelch undoubtedly was the most influential individual in the Live Wire Fund's early years. After moving to Las Vegas from California, Kelch had established radio station KENO in 1940, which he used to promote tourism. Elected president of the Chamber in 1944, he persuaded the members of the necessity of aggressively promoting their community after federal spending dramatically dropped at war's end.

The Chamber members adopted the industry standard of allocating 60 percent of the total raised to advertising and the rest to publicity. They placed dozens of billboards in southern California, Arizona, and around Salt Lake City; took out advertisements in national magazines like Time, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Holiday as well as major newspapers in Los Angeles, New York, and selected other markets; distributed hundreds of thousands of brochures; worked closely with travel agents, even inviting dozens to Las Vegas on free "Quickie Vacations" and distributed a travelogue called "Las Vegas Playground USA" to theaters around the country.

Chamber leaders acknowledged advertising had to be used in close coordination with publicity. "Advertising," as Kelch explained in 1953, "is a salesman who asks for the business after our publicity has softened up the customer." Besides sending stories to newspaper and magazine editors and columnists, the Chamber saturated the nation with photos of tourists relaxing at the resort hotels and of attractive women, including entertainers and dancers from the shows. To handle these various promotional efforts, from advertising to "cheesecake" photos, the Chamber hired three different advertising and publicity firms between 1945 and 1949—the J. Walter Thompson agency, West-Marquis, and Steve Hannagan and Associates. Eventually, the publicity efforts fell to the Las Vegas News Bureau, which previously had been called the Desert Sea News Bureau under the Hannagan agency.

Two themes emerged from these various advertising and publicity efforts. First, the Chamber continued the theme of Las Vegas as the "Last Frontier Town," which had been so successful from 1935 to 1945. Indeed, one of the icons of Las Vegas, the smiling cowboy named "Vegas Vic" whose warm greeting of "Howdy Podner" became ubiquitous on billboards as well as in print ads and brochures, and on Chamber stationery, was developed by the West-Marquis agency in the late 1940s. Eventually, however, publicity efforts and advertising depicted Las Vegas as a hospitable, relaxed resort city with an extraordinary climate and numerous nearby scenic attractions. The prevailing theme encouraged tourists to come have "Fun in the Sun." Regardless of the theme promoted at any given time, advertisers and publicists cooperated in crafting a positive image of Las Vegas because they understood that many Americans saw the community as a sinful place. Legalized gambling and the numerous stories of organized crime's influence in the development of the casinos had made the town a pariah to some. Consequently, images of gambling scarcely appeared in the Live Wire campaigns.

The Chamber used various measures to determine the success of their Live Wire campaigns. In late 1945, for example, the J. Walter Thompson agency reported that in just three months almost 500 publicity pieces sent out had been published and ideas "planted" with journalists had led to 347 more articles in media outlets in thirty-five of the forty-eight states. Three years later, the Hannagan agency claimed that the number of inquiries into the Chamber had grown from just two or three a day to over 12,000 a year. In 1951, the Chamber unrolled 700 feet of publicity clippings and brought in famed cheapskate Jack Benny to proclaim that their publicity effort "must be good; even I come up here to lose money." The most important measure, however, was the number of tourists attracted to Las Vegas. Business Week reported in 1950 that the number of tourists had grown from 750,000 in 1939 to 2,500,000 a decade later. By 1953, over 8,000,000 were crowding into the resort city each year.

Although the effectiveness of the campaigns diminished as resorts developed their own advertising strategies, there is no doubt that the Live Wire Fund campaigns in the immediate post-war period not only brought in an increasing number of tourists, but also made Las Vegas a household name throughout the nation.

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