Gary Ross Dahl, who died earlier this year at age 78, will always be remembered for inventing the ‘Pet Rock’, a 1970s novelty toy craze. The brilliant salesman essentially sold rocks for a living, and managed to make millions through his “ridiculously successful marketing scheme.”
Although he began his career as an advertising copywriter, Dahl quickly turned entrepreneur when his idea of selling rocks as pets took off. It all started one night in the mid-’70s, while having a drink at a local bar in Los Gatos, California. People around him were talking about pets, and about how difficult it was to feed, walk and clean up after them.
Struck by sudden inspiration, Dahl declared that he had no such trouble with his own pet. “I have a pet rock,” he told the crowd. And his response was so well received that he began to toy with the idea, eventually setting up a business around it.
Dahl found two investors, visited a building supply store, and purchased a box of smooth Mexican beach stones for a penny apiece. He knew that all he needed was to package each stone beautifully, and they would sell for a lot more than they were worth. After lots of trials and errors, he finally designed a smart cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes for the ‘pet’ to breathe. The stone was tenderly nestled inside the box, on a bed of softwood shavings.
He also added a manual for good measure, which later proved to be a stroke of genius. The little book contained instructions on the care, feeding, and house training of Pet Rocks. “If, when you remove the rock from its box and it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers,” it read. “The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you move it.”
It was this cheeky manual that managed to catch the fancy of millions, turning the Pet Rock into a nation-wide phenomenon. Dahl’s timing was impeccable, the rock had hit the market at just the right time. The Vietnam War had ended and Watergate was beginning. “There was a whole lot of bad news going on,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 1999. “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.”
After its release during Christmas 1975, Dahl worked up a media storm, even earning a spot on the legendary Tonight Show. Within a few months, 1.5 million rocks were sold at $3.95 apiece, and the demand was higher than ever. “I had one phone to each ear,” Dahl recalled in a 2011 interview. “I taught my P.R. guy to impersonate me so he could answer my calls.” Sales were phenomenal for a while – Dahl moved into a large house with a swimming pool and traded his Honda for a Mercedes.
But his success was too good to last long. As New York Times reports, “the simplicity of his idea proved its undoing.” Although he had trademarked the name of his product, he couldn’t stop others from selling a rock in a box. Lots of people did just that, and took his idea to new levels. There was the Bicentennial Rock, inscribed with the American flag. And someone started offering college degrees for Pet Rocks, at $3 for a bachelor’s and $10 for a Ph.D. Dahl’s business began to suffer, and in the late ’70s, he was sued by his investors and ended up paying them a six-figure judgement.
With the money he earned his Pet Rock business, Dahl and his wife designed and built the Carry Nations Saloon in Los Gatos. He later returned to advertising, and even wrote a book called Advertising for Dummies, published in 2001. But he will always be remembered for the Pet Rock phenomenon. It earned him a good measure of wealth and fame, and also made him wary of the hordes of inventors who thronged him for advice.
“There’s a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living,” Dahl told AP in 1988. “Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn’t have been simpler if I hadn’t done it.” His wife agreed: “Over time, however, people would come to him with weird ideas, expecting him to do for them what he had done for himself. And a lot of times they were really, really stupid ideas,” she said.
“I’m sick of the whole damn thing,” he told the Houston Chronicle.