Created by Gary Dahl (pictured), the rocks were seen as a perfect pet, needing very little maintenance and always behaving, quietly and peacefully.
For a six month period in 1975, the rocks (which were first introduced in the San Francisco area) were given as gifts to friends and family members, packaged in boxes with a 20 page owners manual (entitled “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock”) and often with birth certificates or papers so as to affirm pure breed lineage. The manual instructed “If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers. The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you remove it.” The rocks debuted right before Christmas in 1975 and within months had sold more than 1.5 million.
Though initially just plain rocks, they quickly were sold in a variety of looks, often with small faces painted on, often sold as a group of pebbles, symbolizing a small family all for only $3.95 (they were piece of Mexican beach stone and only cost him a penny a piece, purchased from a nearby sand and gravel company).
It is not difficult to imagine that the popularity of the rocks was short-lived but before they went out of style, more than 5 million had been sold, proving that no matter how ridiculous a concept, millions of people would have no problem making someone else wealthy for daring to present them with it. In 1980, Newsweek magazine called the Pet Rock “one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever.”
Dahl was born on December 18, 1936 in in Bottineau, North Dakota and graduated from what is now known as Washington State University after which he began his career in advertising. So how did he come up his great idea? In an interview with the Toledo Blade in 1999 he said “At the time, the Vietnam War was winding down; Watergate has just started up… There was a whole lot of bad news going on. People were down. It wasn’t a real good time for the national psyche. I think the Pet Rock was just a good giggle. Everybody needed a good laugh and the media ate it up.” Oscar winning actor Art Carney, who owned five of them stated, “They’re wonderful. You don’t have to feed them, take them for walks—and you can leave them for months and they’re fine when you get back.”
As one can imagine, the fad could only go on so long before it came crashing down to Earth. The Houston Chronicle said that ““Dahl got rich, got cocky, had a damn good time, opened a bar, bought a big house, drank too much, sold his bar, dreamed up a few clever but cataclysmic marketing flops, took up golf, got a real job, sued, got sued, felt betrayed.”
Dahl tried a number of other creations over the years including sand breeding kits (complete with male and female sand), cubes of dirt from China (only $5.95) and authoring the book “Advertising for Dummies, 2nd edition). None of these, however, culminated in the same success he enjoyed with the Pet Rock.
Gary Dahl died on March 23, 2015 and left a legacy as a marketing genius so imaginative that he could sell a rock… to everyone.
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