When the alien overlords finally make contact, they’ll be sure to have some questions and there are a few moments in our collective history that are just too weird to explain. Fads like hula hoops, Slinkys, fidget spinners—and the quirkiest of them all: Pet Rocks.
As you might have guessed, Gary Dahl, the guy who invented Pet Rocks, had been drinking when he came up with the idea. The story goes that he was boozing at his local bar in Los Gatos, the California town where he lived, when talk eventually turned to pets and how much of a pain they are—all the feeding and walking, not to mention having to scoop up all that poop.
A freelance copywriter at the time, Gary declared that his pet never caused him any trouble whatsoever. How so? Rather than keep a golden retriever, a Siamese or guinea pigs, he had a pet rock. It was a dumb joke, but one that Dahl instantly thought might just be silly enough to work.
Within a couple of weeks, he’d talked a couple of workmates into becoming investors, and they hit the local hardware store together, where they literally brought a truckload of smooth beach stones for about one cent each—the plan being to turn around and sell them for $3.95.
Now, who the hell would pay for something they could easily find in their own backyard? Incredibly, in the months leading up to Christmas 1975, it turns out more than 1.5 million people would.
Dahl was decades ahead of his time: his genius was in the branding. Each Pet Rock came in a cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes, and was gently resting on a bed of straw. Tapping his copywriting skills, Dahl included an accompanying manual on how to care for, feed and house train your new companion. “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.”
Like every other fad, Pet Rocks came and went almost overnight. While Dahl managed to trademark the name, he couldn’t stop competitors from selling a rock in a box, so the marketplace was quickly flooded with lonely stones that couldn’t find a home. The craze that Newsweek later called “one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever” was over.
This story is from Issue 9. If your Lunch Lady collection needs completing, you can order back issues from our Shop here.