Oct. 20, 2021
The Rock that Went Viral — FYI It's Not Dwayne Johnson
Bellbottoms, leisure suits, mood rings, lava lamps, disco… Of all the fads of the 1970s, none were as crazy as the Pet Rock. It was the invention of copywriter Gary Dahl, and it earned him $15 million in about 6 months.
The Year the Pet Rock Was Born
It was 1975. Watergate was still on people’s minds. The Vietnam war ended with the fall of Saigon. The U.S. was in a recession, and gasoline shortages limited people’s mobility.
Gerald Ford took the office of the President of the United States when Richard Nixon resigned the year before. President Ford escaped two assassination attempts in September. Judge John J. Sirica sentenced John N. Mitchell, John D. Ehrlichman, and H.R. Haldeman to Federal prison for their involvement in the Watergate scandal.
A Copywriter Walks Into a Bar...
Gary Dahl was hanging out with some friends in a bar in Los Gatos, CA. The conversation turned to their kids and pets. “I want a puppy.” “I want a kitty.” “I want a turtle.”
Of course, the young'uns promised that they would take good care of them: feed and water them, clean up after them, bathe and groom them, and all that. After all, a pet is the perfect way for kids to learn responsibility.
Most of the work, of course, fell on the parents.
Gary Dahl took slugged his 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 your kitchen trash and scatter it around. It doesn't dig in your potted plants."
His friends wanted to know, "What sort of pet is this?"
And they laughed.
But later, Dahl started thinking he might have something.
An Ordinary Rock With Emotional Appeal
This wasn't like the kids' craft project where you glue on googly eyes or yarn for hair. There was nothing special about the rock at all. It was a gray egg-shaped beach stone that Dahl bought from a sand and gravel company.
He designed a box that looked like the pet carrier you get when you buy a hamster from a pet store. It had air holes and had a printed warning to read the manual before letting the Pet Rock out of the box.
The manual was a parody of pet care manuals from a pet store, and it treated Pet Rock like a live pet:
And you could have this perfect pet for the price of only $3.95.
How Does Pet Rock Appeal to Logic?
Professional copywriters follow these principles:
How many times does this happen? A prospect hears a sales presentation and then says, “I’ll have to think about it.”
An effective presentation should leave them with nothing to think about. It’s a copywriter or salesperson’s job to address the objections before the prospect even thinks about them.
There’s no doubt that Pet Rock had emotional appeal. But what about the logic? Remember:
Yet people shelled out $3.95 for something they can find in their backyard.
Four bucks isn’t a lot, even for 1975. But you could buy a lot more back then. For example, 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 $17 today.
On the surface, it seems that there’s no logical reason behind the decision to buy a pet rock.
Yet in the Christmas shopping season in 1975, Bloomingdale’s sold more than 400 units a day.
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.”
Ah, that’s the key! How much would people pay for a bit of escapism in 1975? Having some fun was worth the price. It’s a good topic to start a conversation at parties.
Dahl introduced the Pet Rock around the time when stores started gearing up for the Christmas shopping season.
What to get for the man who has everything? How about the perfect pet?
The timing was right. The Vietnam war ended with the North and Vietcong forces capturing Saigon. The Watergate scandal was still on people’s minds. Gasoline shortages made it impossible for people to take long trips to get away from it all.
The Pet Rock represented the ultimate escapism. An ordinary rock for a pet. It’s the perfect game of make-believe.
It was a stupid idea whose time had come.
Dahl tried to recreate the success with a sand breeding kit, with two kinds of sand and a breeding container. It flopped. He tried again with canned earthquake, where a wind-up device caused the can to jump around on the table as if in an earthquake. It too failed.
The rock itself was nothing special. It was the pet care manual and certificate of authenticity combined with packaging that made it a hit.