In April 1975, Gary Dahl, a Los Gatos, California advertising executive, was in a bar listening to his friends complain about their pets. Although adorable and loveable, barking, dirty litter boxes, tearing up furniture, and constant feeding and care made messy pets somewhat of a nuisance at times. Gary said, jokingly, that a “pet” rock would be an ideal pet to own. He explained that a pet rock did not require feeding, walking, grooming, would not die or become sick and would not be disobedient. In short, they would be the perfect pet. When Gary arrived back home, he began thinking “maybe a pet rock was not such a bad idea after all.” If it were marketed well, it just might work.
Gary quickly drew up an instruction manual that explained, in a humorous manner, how to care for a pet rock. He then established Rock Bottom Productions and purchased plain gray stones from a builder’s supply store in town to use as the pets (the stones were imported from Rosarito Beach in Baja California, Mexico). He developed a marketing plan to sell the pet rocks and priced the pets at $3.95 each.
The Pet Rocks were marketed as “live pets” and sold in custom cardboard boxes. Each cardboard box, made to look like a pet carrier, came complete with straw and breathing holes for the animal’s comfort. Dahl’s biggest expense was the die-cutting and manufacture of the boxes. The rocks only cost a penny a piece and the straw was nearly free.
For the initial run of instruction manual booklets, Dahl had a printing job for a client and “tacked” the pet rock booklet onto the main job. This resulted in a batch requiring only a cut and trim at almost no cost except some labor. Each pet rock came with a thirty-two page official training manual titled The Care and Training of your Pet Rock. The humorous instructions explained how to properly raise and care for the owner’s new Pet Rock (notably lacking instructions for feeding and bathing). The instruction manual was full of jokes, puns, and gags. The manual contained several commands that could be taught to the new pet. While “sit” and “stay” were effortless to accomplish, “roll over” usually required a little extra help from the trainer/owner. “Come”, “Stand”, and “Shake hands” were found to be near-impossible to teach, but “attack” was fairly simple (also with some additional help from the owner).
Dahl introduced the Pet Rock in August 1975 at a gift show in San Francisco. As an experience ad executive, Dahl knew how to work the media. He created a press release which he sent out, complete with picture of Dahl surrounded by boxes of his Pet Rocks, to virtually every major media outlet. Two months later, Newsweek carried an article on the nutty fad and dozens of local newspapers picked up the story. Even Neiman Marcus order 500 of the Pet Rocks and Dahl made an appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show (twice).
By the end of October Gary Dahl was shipping ten thousand Pet Rocks every Day and by Christmas, two and a half tons of rocks had been sold. Three-fourths of all the daily newspapers in America had run Pet Rock stories, often including Gary Dahl’s tongue-in-cheek revelations about how each rock was individually tested for obedience at Rosarita Beach in Baja, Mexico, before being selected and boxed. The time to market for the Pet Rock was only two months and a subsequent six month explosion in sales made Gary Dahl a millionaire.
Ken Hakuta (author of How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars) has an explanation for the periodic success of what he calls “useless dumb jokes” like the Pet Rock: It gave people a few moments of absolutely meaningless pleasure in a troubled world – no small accomplishment. As Hakuta explained:
“If there were more fads, there would probably be a lot fewer psychiatrists. … Instead of paying $100-an-hour therapy sessions, you could just get yourself a couple of Wacky Wallwalkers (a rubber toy that sticks and wiggles on a wall, which earned Hakuta $20 million) and a Slinky and lock yourself up in a room for a couple of hours. When you came out, you’d be fine.”