How the Pet Rock Earned Millions for a Copywriter
Bellbottoms, leisure suits, mood rings, lava lamps... the 1970s saw all kinds of crazy fads. But none were as wacky as the Pet Rock.
There was nothing special about the Pet Rock.
It was a gray egg-shaped beach stone from Rosarito Beach in Mexico.
It came in a carrier box with air holes — like the box you get when you get a new pet from a pet store.
It had a care manual. It begins with the sotry of your new pet:
"Your PET ROCK didn't come out of any old rock pile, you know! There is nothing common about genuine, pedigreed PET ROCKS. They descend from a long line of famous rocks."
"Place your rock in its training area and give the command, SIT. Many rocks will attempt to deceive you by lying down, thinking that you won't know the difference. This should not be encouraged! If you say, SIT, then your rock should sit and that's all there is to it."
"Owners of Attack Trained PET ROCKS have a responsibility to society to use their dangerous pets for protection only, and not for instigating trouble of any kind."
The Pet Rock could learn all kinds of tricks. Play dead was the easiest. Roll over was best done on a hillside.
In Los Gatos, California, some friends were hanging out in a bar. Among them was a 38-year-old copywriter, Gary Dahl. They were talking about pets they bought for their kids.
Of course, the kiddos assured mommy and daddy that they would take good care of the critters: feed and water them, clean up after them, bathe and groom them, and all that. After all, keeping up with a pet teaches responsibility...
Dahl slammed back a cold lager and announced, "I have the perfect pet — The kind that every child should have."
"It doesn't shed or molt. It doesn't cough up furballs.
It won't chew up your shoes. It doesn't claw your furniture or carpet."
"It won't knock over the trash and scatter it all over the room. It doesn't dig in your potted plants."
They all wanted to know, "What sort of pet is that?" "A rock!" And they laughed. But Gary Dahl's tipsy quip led to an idea that brought in so much profit, it's not even funny.
"Gee, I've Got Four Dollars... I Think I'll Throw it in the Street...
"... Wait, I can have the perfect pet for four dollars?"
Four bucks wasn’t a lot, even in 1975, but you could do a lot more with it back then.
For instance, you could have 2 McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with cheese, 2 large fries, 2 shakes, and 2 hot apple pies for about $3.50.
That’d cost you about $20.00 today.
So what made this rock more valuable than a fast-food dinner for two?
It wasn’t rare. It only came in one color, gray. It’s not part of a collection. But the Pet Rock came with something special — a story.
In an interview with People magazine, Dahl said its success was because, “People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems. This takes them on a fantasy trip — you might say we packaged a sense of humor.”
Bloomingdale’s in New York sold 500 Pet Rocks a day during the Christmas shopping season. Dahl estimated that a total of 100,000 were selling each day.
By February 1976, the flames of the fad died down and the Pet Rock was discontinued. While the USA was celebrating its 200th anniversary, Dahl tried to renew interest in the Pet Rock with a Bicentennial edition. It didn’t do very well.
Dahl opened a bar in Los Gatos and ran it for a few years before going back to writing advertising copy. In 2001, he published Advertising for Dummies.