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Here's how
the advertising exec invented a
million-dollar rock

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By Paul Niemann

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"Place it on some old newspapers. The rock will require no further instruction."

-- from the Pet Rock Training Manual

"Two-thirds of a pun is p.u."

-- comment from your humble scribe's former college instructor

[MAY 20, 2004]  In 1975 a California advertising executive named Gary Dahl was telling some of his colleagues what he thought would be an ideal pet -- a Pet Rock. His friends didn't think of pursuing the idea, but the 37-year-old Dahl thought it had some potential. He didn't take the idea for granite -- I mean granted (bad pun No. 1).

The Pet Rock is one of the best-known fads of all time. The Pet Rock is to novelty gifts what a Rube Goldberg invention is to any type of system that requires about a dozen steps to achieve what should be a very simple task.

The Pet Rock is synonymous with inventions that made a fortune for the inventor, even though the Pet Rock technically wasn't an invention. This totally ridiculous idea succeeded because the only person who thought it made sense did a brilliant job of packaging and promoting it. Since this happened in the '70s, it's my journalistic duty to inform you that he was not stoned (bad pun No. 2) when he came up with the idea.

The feature that made the Pet Rock so attractive was the instruction manual and booklet that accompanied each rock. Retailing for $3.95, each of the rocks cost Dahl about a penny apiece. The Pet Rock Training Manual and the gift box -- shaped like a pet carrying case -- are what really made it a popular item, and they also made up the majority of Dahl's costs.

The fact that people would pay for something as simple as a rock has caused many would-be inventors to scratch their heads and ask, "Why didn't I think of that?"

The Pet Rock was originally conceived as a parody of a dog training manual, and it went on to outsell other '70s fads such as lava lamps and mood rings. It did not have the staying power of some of the best fads of the '60s such as the Slinky, the Hula-Hoop or the Frisbee, though. Its meteoric rise (bad pun No. 3) commanded even more attention than Rubik's Cube or Cabbage Patch Kids of the '80s.

 

[to top of second column in this article]

Dahl introduced the Pet Rock at a San Francisco gift show in 1975 and began writing up orders immediately. A major reason why he was able to sell so many rocks was because he received so much media exposure, including:

--A half-page story in Newsweek.

--Two appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

--Stories in three-fourths of the daily newspapers in the United States.

In fact, with all of the media exposure his Pet Rock received, I doubt if he spent a dime on advertising. He became a millionaire from his idea by selling more than a million rocks at a profit of $1.05 each. In the process, he became a legend of nearly mythical proportions. Other inventors have made a fortune with their products, but it takes a genius to squeeze a fortune out of a rock!

As is the custom with fads, the popularity of the Pet Rock fell just as quickly as it began. By early 1976, just five months after it hit America like an asteroid, the Pet Rock phenomenon had faded away.

Where is the inventor now?

Gary Dahl runs his own ad agency in California. He also wrote a book for the popular "Dummies" series, called "Advertising for Dummies."

If you're keeping score at home, there were three really bad puns in this story and, counting the asteroid comment, one pretty good metaphor.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann is the author of "Invention Mysteries -- The Little-Known Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions." He can be reached at niemann7@inventionmysteries.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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