It was a craze to rival the Hula-Hoop, and even less explicable. For a mere $3.95, a consumer could buy a rock - a plain, ordinary, egg-shaped rock of the kind one could dig up in almost any backyard.
The wonder of it was, for a few frenzied months in 1975, more than a million consumers did, becoming the proud if slightly abashed owners of Pet Rocks, the fad that Newsweek later called “one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever.”
Gary Dahl, the man behind that scheme - described variously as a marketing genius and a genial mountebank - died on March 23 at 78. A down-at-the-heels advertising copywriter when he hit on the idea, he originally meant it as a joke. But the concept of a “pet” that required no actual work and no real commitment resonated perfectly with the self-indulgent ‘70s, and before long a cultural phenomenon was born.
Pet Rocks made Dahl a millionaire practically overnight. Though the fad ran its course long ago, the phrase “pet rock” endures in the American lexicon, denoting a useless entity or a meteoric success.
The genius was in the packaging. Each Pet Rock came in a cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes, tenderly nestled on a bed of excelsior. Dahl’s droll masterstroke was his accompanying manual on the care, feeding and house training of Pet Rocks.
“If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers,” the manual read. “The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you remove it.”
Pet Rocks hit the marketplace in time for Christmas 1975. They were soon featured on “The Tonight Show” and in a blizzard of newspaper articles. In a matter of months, some 1.5 million rocks - more than 2 tons - were sold.
Gary Ross Dahl was born on Dec. 18, 1936, in Bottineau, North Dakota, and reared in Spokane, Washington. His mother was a waitress, his father a lumber-mill worker. After studying at what is now Washington State University, Dahl made his way into advertising.
Dahl’s first and second marriages ended in divorce. His survivors include his third wife, the former Marguerite Wood, who confirmed his death, in Jacksonville, Oregon, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; a sister, Candace Dahl; two children, Christine Nunez and Eric Dahl, from his first marriage; a daughter, Samantha Leighton, from his second; a stepdaughter, Vicki Pershing; and seven grandchildren.
Though the rock made him wealthy, it also made him wary, for he was besieged ever after by hordes of would-be inventors, seeking his advice on the next big thing.
“There’s a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living,” Dahl told The Associated Press in 1988. “Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn’t have been simpler if I hadn’t done it.”