In the ‘70s, technological advancements had helped the toy industry blossom, bringing many recognized toys to life. Many toys made the spotlight, including Stretch Armstrong, a world-renowned stretchable rubber action figure, Weebles, a variety of roly-poly figures, and NERF ball, the world’s first indoor ball.
However, all of these products pale in comparison to one of the best toys on God’s green earth, the Pet Rock, a collection of smooth ordinary stones.
A sudden cultural phenomenon in 1975 America, Gary Ross Dahl “invented” the Pet Rock, profiting more than $1 million in half a year.
Many people were inquisitive about the reason why a piece of rock made a millionaire overnight, and the answer lies in front of them: marketing.
On December 18th, 1936, Dahl was born in a small family residing in Bottineau, North Carolina. Then, the household relocated to Spokane, Washington.
Both of his parents were the breadwinners; Dahl’s father was a lumber mill worker and Dahl’s mother was a waitress.
After Dahl graduated from high school, he pursued higher education at Washington State University and graduated with a degree in advertising. Dahl later became a freelance advertising copywriter, and he claimed that it is “ another word for being broke.”
Living inside a small cabin in Los Gatos, California, Dahl described himself as a “quasi-dropout” and struggled to pay bills.
A Solid Plan
Dahl and his friends were at a local bar at night in Los Gatos in April 1975. The conversation of the group gradually shifted from topic to topic, eventually ending up about pets and their burden. They complained that their pets require a lot of attention and care, often draining their time, energy, and money.
Slightly intoxicated, Dahl joked that he had an immortal pet that didn’t need feeding, grooming, bathing, vetting, or exercise. It’s a pet rock.
“I have a pet rock. No vet bills, except once in a while to scrape off the moss. ”Drunk Gary Dahl to his friend
When Dahl got back home from the bar that night, he was restless with the idea of the carefree ‘pet’. Dahl realized the full potential of the Pet Rock: a way to save his home and stop his financial struggles once and for all.
Soon enough, Dahl began drafting up the first booklet of The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock, a manual on how to care for and train their new rock pet.
“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.”The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock
The main highlight of the book is Dahl’s clever tongue-in-cheek humor and rock-related puns sprinkled throughout the pages. The contents of the book presented the rock as a living, breathing pet that can be trained for various reasons, is passed down from other famous Pet Rocks, and can get illnesses and injuries.
Dahl persuaded two of his colleagues, George Coakley and John Heagerty, to help him fund the project as investors, with Coakley reportedly supporting them with $10,000, worth more than $54,000 today (2022).
With the funding acquired, the three began buying essential supplies for the product.
The three made their first purchase on a pile of smooth pebbles sourced from the great beaches of Rosarita, Baja California, Mexico at a penny a piece.
The cost of excelsior, softwood shavings, was nearly zero, providing the three with almost unlimited cushioning material. Since Dahl was a copywriter, he was able to produce the manuals together with his employers’ products, effectively multitasking. Oddly enough, the largest expense in the entire production is the packaging, not the rock itself.
Dahl was the leading designer of the packaging for the ‘pet.’ Mimicking actual cardboard pet carriers, the box had air holes for the ‘pet’ to breathe through, a handle for the owner to carry, and a bed of straw for the Rock to sit on. Around the box was the name of the product proudly displayed in bold with smaller labels scattered across the packaging. The aesthetics of the box was also a marketing ploy as it build up the ‘realness’ of the Pet Rocks. Additionally, the guidebook also compliments the tongue-in-cheek gag as well.
The era and social climate also contributed to the success of Pet Rock. At that moment, the Vietnam war had recently ended on the 30th of April, 1975, but Nixon’s Watergate Scandal had veered its ugly head again, the Second World War’s post-war economic boom was finally over, and there was an ongoing economic recession. People’s moods were rather dismal.
Dahl saw an opportunity in lighting up the mood by creating a silly joke out of a rock at a minimal price.
“People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems, this takes them on a fantasy trip — you might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor.”Gary Dahl to interviewers from People Magazine in 1975
After four to five months of preparation, Pet Rock finally made its debut at a San Francisco gift fair in August 1975. The price of each Pet Rock was set at $2, which is around $11 today. Dahl stayed at his booth, waiting for someone to be interested in his product.
The public took a great liking to Dahl’s satire and ridiculous marketing. Pet Rocks rolled off the shelves.
Over time, Pet Rocks steadily gained profits and building craze, something that Dahl himself didn’t foresee in the planning process. Interested in increasing its sales, Neiman Marcus, an American luxury department store chain based in Texas, proposed a trade offer to Dahl: a thousand Pet Rocks. Dahl set the listing price at $3.95, which has a purchasing power of $21.46 today (2022). Reportedly, Bloomingdale’s, another chain based in New York, also agreed with Dahl to purchase Pet Rocks for the same price — effectively quadrupling the value of a rock.
Many news outlets were astounded by Dahl’s creation, deciding to publish articles about Dahl.
Notably, Newsweek, a weekly news magazine, and The Tonight Show, a famous late-night talk show. The process of Dahl getting into the spotlight formed a feedback loop.
When Gary Dahl and the Pet Rock were presented in media, the mania intensified, and the presses and hosts wanted to talk more about him, thus causing the fad to continue. As the trend snowballed, Dahl’s team gained a ludicrous amount of profit, selling ten thousand Pet Rocks per day. All the while garnering massive recognition from the media.
For Dahl, he was able to buy a better home for himself and his wife, his wife, Marguerite Dhal. As the trio witnessed rapid growth, they founded Rock Bottom Productions to recruit more employees and improve their management. The company was thriving to a point where Dahl claimed that he “taught his P.R. guy to impersonate me so he could also answer his calls.”
When December arrived, people began purchasing Pet Rocks as gag Christmas gifts for their friends, family, coworkers, etc. More than a hundred thousand Pet Rocks were bought per day, accumulating over $15 million of profit at the end of the holiday season. With more than 1.3 million Pet Rocks sold to the open market, it has cemented itself as one of the most silliest and successful trends in American pop culture history.
Today, you can purchase your very own Pet Rock on amazon.com, complete with Dahl’s original, delightful manuals on the care of your new pet.
On the Rocks
In the late ‘70s, his original investors, George Coakley and John Heagerty were not satisfied with the shares gained from Dahl, deciding to sue him for higher splits of profit. The judge of the trial sided with the duo, resulting in Coakley and Heagerty’s victory.
Cornered, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check for compensation. After the lawsuit, Dahl and his former friends became bitter with each other and broke up.
“We would have liked to have continued a relationship with Gary. But money has a divisive element to it. Gary [Dahl] got rich quick and then he wanted more than he deserved.”John Heagerty
With the holiday season over, the Pet Rock craze began to fade as the gag was slowly turning more redundant. Dahl, wanting to keep the trend alive, chose to create Pet Rock-themed merchandise to promote the product, ranging from T-shirts to ‘pet’ shampoo. He also advertised them as valentine gifts for their loved ones, yet the people were not interested.
When Dahl initially created Pet Rocks, he only copyrighted the product name, not the rocks themselves as it is impossible to patent them. Many copycats began profiting from Dahl’s concept of putting a rock inside the box and advertised them as pets, slowly draining Dahl’s gain. Auxiliary businesses also sprung up to create their products around the Pet Rock brand for a piece of Dahl’s pie, including, the Bicentennial Pet Rock, which is painted with the American flag & Pet Rock college certificates. However, the well had run dry.
With the company slowly losing revenue, Dahl decided to sell his company. Alas, Rock Bottom Productions had finally hit rock bottom.
The Only Way is Up
Other than the phenomenal Pet Rock, Dahl had designed products similar to it too, such as the Sand Breeding Kit, which is a sand counterpart of the Pet Rock, and Canned Earthquake, which is a dummy coffee can that contains a windup system that enables the can to bounce around.
Despite the creativity put into both works, they never outshone the success of the Pet Rock.
Dahl had found that his second ambition was revamping and running a small bar. With all of the planning and work cut out, Dahl successfully bought a small saloon in Los Gatos, California. Dahl named his bar ‘Carrie’s Nation’s Saloon,’ which is a reference to a well-known figure in the Prohibition era. The branding resulted in Dahl becoming a multi-millionaire in under a year.
Despite his ambition achieved, Gary Dahl was met with challenges inside his establishment and his customers.
“I used to have open days at AMC (Associated Merchandising Corporation) when vendors would bring in their items that they wanted our stores to buy. After the Pet Rock, I can’t tell you how many people came to my office to show me their ‘pet rock’ ideas, and, you know, I never saw another item that could ever match the Pet Rock.”Gary Dahl on annoying inventors
Most of his patrons were found to be annoying since Dahl was a renowned marketeer, many people assumed they had invented the next Pet Rock. Dahl had reported times when a group of investors expressed that they were going to package elephant/bull excrement or another team claimed that they were planning to create a petting stick for the Pet Rock.
Dahl repeated again and again that the next Pet Rock couldn’t be recreated, yet people still tried. Losing patience, Dahl quit his bartending days and become a sailboat broker somewhere, citing that he would be taking an “eight-year vacation.”
Later on, Dahl returned to his professional advertising career in writing for his company until retirement.
In his final years, Dahl contributed to the For Dummies book series by writing Advertising for Dummies, a reference book that teaches beginners how to effectively market and advertise their products or services, and then published it in 2001.
On March 23, 2015, Gary Dahl succumbed to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Pet Rock became a cultural phenomenon that forever shook American pop culture history, popularized many pieces of work, and was referenced in the media. Tamagotchi, Furby, Neopets, and many other inanimate pets came into fashion with the youth, and many shows made mention of the Pet Rock as the “best pet to grace us all.”
Thanks for the laughs, Gary Dahl.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but the Pet Rock is my friend.