The History Of The Notorious Pet Rock (And The Inventor Who Became A Millionaire)
Fads | December 5, 2017
Los Gatos, California: Gary Dahl, 39, creator of the ‘Pet Rock,’ one of the best selling novelty items this Christmas season, gets ready to pack the 1,000,000th Pet Rock sold to date. (Getty Images)
(You may remember a version of this chat from the film Office Space.)
But what was the Pet Rock’s appeal? Why did people buy this thing? And what of the man who invented the Pet Rock, advertising copywriter Gary Dahl — why did fate smile upon him and his so-stupid-it’s-brilliant idea?
It’s hardly surprising that the Pet Rock was dreamed up over a few drinks at a bar. As the story goes, Dahl was out with friends one night in the mid-’70s, and the conversation turned to pets — specifically, the hassles of feeding and caring for them. Dahl jokingly bragged that he had a pet that required no care or attention of any kind, because it was a rock.
Though Dahl has been portrayed as a “freelance copywriter,” he later admitted the job title is “another word for being broke.” Desperation and a knack for packaging, it turned out, was a profitable combination. Dahl managed to convince some investors that with the right presentation, unremarkable Mexican rocks (bought at a hardware store for about a penny apiece) could become the ultimate gag gift.
The history of the Pet Rock isn’t about the rock — the whole fad was never about the rock. If plain-old rocks had suddenly become popular, people would have flocked to beaches and streams to find their own, for free. But Pet Rocks were different, simply because of their packaging and the mock-seriousness with which their inventor presented them to the public. Gary Dahl’s sense of humor struck a chord with a lot of people at a particular moment in time. On more than one occasion, he said that two feelings in the zeitgeist made the public receptive to his invention: a prevailing boredom, and a need for absurd, understated in-joke.
“People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems,” he told People magazine in 1975. “You might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor.”
The year 1975 was the big one for the smiling, bearded Dahl and his Pet Rock. The gimmick was introduced in August, in San Francisco. It was the sort of quirky news story — not exactly man bites dog, but man sells rocks — that would thrive in the media of the day, which included everything from articles in local newspapers to an appearance on The Tonight Show. In today’s terms, the Pet Rock “went viral,” riding a tide of publicity during the fall of 1975 through the Christmas season, when it was the year’s hottest seller.
Its rapid rise to ubiquity wasn’t the only reason why the Pet Rock became the king of all fads. The history of the Pet Rock also includes a steep fall from grace in 1976. It went from must-have to meh.
Why The Pet Rock Was The Ultimate Conversation Piece
Gary Dahl’s joke about a pet that didn’t need any attention was fun while it lasted. The Pet Rock was hypoallergenic, didn’t bark, bite, shed or poop on the floor. It could be left alone for extended periods of time without imposing on a neighbor to let it out or feed it. It got along with your other pets and, best of all… no vet bills! The Pet Rock was also cheaper than a real pet — at $3.95, much cheaper. That’s a reasonable price to be the clever one at the party who can always claim to have the lowest of all low-maintenance pets. As long as everyone and their brother haven’t bought the same gimmicky product and can’t crack the same joke.
The Pet Rock Was Dumb. Its Packaging Was Genius
Any jerk on the street could have tried to sell a rock that was a pet. But Gary Dahl went all in on the idea. He didn’t really sell the rock itself — but he sold the hell out of the absurdity of an inanimate object as a pet. The Pet Rock came nestled on a soft, shredded paper bedding, in a handy cardboard box with a handle (just in case you did decide to take your pet on an outing), and text describing the contents as “one genuine pedigreed pet rock.” Don’t worry, though… the box had air holes, so it wouldn’t suffocate.
The Ridiculous Instructions That Made The Pet Rock A Hit
All responsible pet owners need to make sure they are properly educated on how to care for a pet — and with Gary Dahl in charge, Pet Rock owners would be no exception. Dahl had the foresight to include a nearly 40-page instruction pamphlet. “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock,” to ensure that the Pet Rock would be properly cared for. Early on, the manual suggests a mutually beneficial relationship:
Your Pet Rock will be a devoted friend and companion for many years to come. Rocks enjoy a rather long life span so the two of you will never have to part — at least not on your Pet Rock’s account. Once you have transcended the awkward training stage your rock will mature into a faithful, obedient, loving pet with but one purpose in life — to be at your side when you want it to, and to go lie down when you don’t.
Did The Pet Rock Actually Do Tricks? Yes And No
The instruction book included illustrations of the rocks in (in)action along with numerous jokes about the rock’s (non-existent) pet-like behavior. Here are a few gems from The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock:
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.
Only rocks that have demonstrated a strong capacity for learning and obedience are allowed to wear the name Pet Rock.
Limit your training sessions to fifteen minutes, twice each day. One half-hour session is not recommended as a rock’s attention span is rather short.
To teach your Pet Rock to FETCH, throw a stick or a ball as far as you can. Next, throw your Pet Rock as far as you can. Rarely, if ever, will your Pet Rock return with the object, but that’s the way it goes.
How Much Can You Really Make Selling a Rock In A Box?
The economics of the Pet Rock were simple, and somewhat staggering. By Christmas 1975, Dahl had sold over a million of his $3.95 gag gifts, and by the end of the Pet Rock’s heyday, the total number of units sold was around 1.5 million. The Pet Rock’s success was the perfect srorm of fads and virality, and we humans can never quite leave perfect things alone. For years, would-be Gary Dahls (and Dahl himself) hawked ordinary things in clever packaging, seeking to profit from some curio that might be the “next” Pet Rock. Other entrepreneurs sold Pet Rock accessories, or shameless knockoffs. But there never was another Pet Rock.
Was There Life After The Pet Rock?
Most people know Gary Dahl — if they know him at all — as the guy who got rich off the Pet Rock. But his fling with improbable success was just one episode in his life. Dahl spent money while he had it, buying cars and a bigger property with a better house, and opening a bar. Other chapters were less appealing: lawsuits (both directed at him and initiated by him), follow-up gimmicks that all fizzled, too much drinking, and — perhaps worst of all — eventually having to go out there and get a real job again. He ended up with a strange and tedious kind of celebrity, endlessly hounded by entrepreneurs convinced their dumb idea would be the next big thing. In a 1999 interview with the Sacramento Bee, he told the reporter, “I don’t help inventors. I’d like you to put that in your article. … Tell them not to call me.” Dahl’s post-Pet Rock highlights included winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in 2000 and writing Advertising for Dummies (2001). He died in 2015, aged 78.