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A Rock-Solid Idea

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By Randal C. Hill

Late in 1975, there would have been no reason for you to know the name of Gary Dahl. By the beginning of the next year, though, there’s little doubt that you would have become aware of, if not his name, his quirky creation that had made him a pop-culture phenomenon.

Dahl owned a California advertising agency that specialized in radio and TV ads. Business had fallen off recently, and the discouraged 38-year-old was frequently casting about to change his fortunes with a clever (and marketable) idea.

One night, he and some pals were drinking at their favorite hangout in Los Gatos, a town in the rapidly growing Silicon Valley. Gary’s pals were complaining about all the hassles and expenses involved with their household pets. Dahl, though, smiled and joked that he had no such problems, as his domestic pet was a rock. Laughter followed, as did a few more drinks.

But back home, Gary began writing the Pet Rock Training Manual, a 36-page, chuckle-inspiring booklet filled with puns, jokes and illustrations of various rocks in (in)action. He lightheartedly explained that Pet Rocks required no feeding, walking, bathing, grooming or vet visits. They were hypoallergenic and didn’t bark, bite or have accidents on the floor. They were good at obeying certain commands—”stay,” “play dead”—but admittedly required some owner assistance with “fetch,” “come” and “roll over.”

He designed a cardboard pet carrier complete with ventilation holes and a bedding of straw or shredded paper. The rocks themselves—smooth stones from a beach in Baja California—came from a local sand and gravel company and cost one penny each. The straw or shredded paper wasn’t much more. Dahl’s biggest expense was the cardboard carrier.

He convinced two friends to invest $10,000 each in his product, and Pet Rocks soon began appearing in Bay Area novelty stores and at gift shows. Word and interest spread quickly across the country, especially after Newsweek ran an illustrated feature on the preposterous pretend pet. Gary appeared twice on “The Tonight Show,” and someone named Al Bolt even released a single record called “I’m in Love with My Pet Rock.”

By Christmas, 100,000 Pet Rocks were being bought daily.

Following the holidays—and after 1.5 million units had changed hands—the fad died as quickly as had the Hula Hoop. But by then Gary, who earned 95 cents profit on each $3.95 sale, had pocketed over 1 million dollars. He gifted each newly wealthy investor with a shiny new Mercedes, then purchased a Los Gatos hillside mansion complete with his own Mercedes in the garage.

To many people, Pet Rocks were a silly “craze du jour,” seen as a statement about the absurdity of consumer culture. To others, though, the success of the novelty became a testament to clever marketing. Whichever, Dahl’s item had made a lasting impact on the toy industry and the American popular culture.

And it had all been fun. Gary told People magazine, “You might say we packaged a sense of humor.” ISI

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