Remembering Pet Rocks And Their Inventor: 'A Tough Act to Follow'

The Pet Rock with its pet carrier, complete with air holes, and care manual was introduced in 1975. Dan Hardy/Houston Chronicle/AP

Gary Dahl, best known for inventing and marketing the Pet Rock in the 1970s, passed away on March 23 at age 78. The New York Times' obituary published Tuesday quoted a Newsweek story about Dahl from the July 14, 1980 issue, which called the Pet Rock fad "one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever."

After conceiving of the idea as a joke while at a bar one night, the then-freelance copywriter ran with it and sold more than 1.5 million Pet Rocks in a few months. After that smashing success, Dahl pursued a string of failed projects that included Sand Breeding Kits and Red China Dirt, before he finally began marketing other people's ideas. Dahl later became the author of Advertising for Dummies, first published in 2001, in which he recalled the media coverage he received during the Pet Rock craze, including a half-page story in Newsweek's November 10, 1975 issue. Here's the original story from the July 14, 1980 issue.

It was one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever. In 1975, California advertising copywriter Gary Dahl packed ordinary stones in cardboard carrying cases along with care-and-training manuals and sold them for $4 each as Pet Rocks. More than 1.2 million Americans bought the gag, and within three months, Dahl had earned $1 million. Unfortunately, he says, Pet Rocks are "a damned tough act to follow."

In the afterglow of his success, Dahl began selling Sand Breeding Kits—male and female vials of sand that could be mated to produce cat litter, landfills or even deserts. The first 50,000 sold out fast at $4 each, so Dahl ordered another 50,000, which turned out to be a mistake. More than half the second shipment is collecting dust in a warehouse, and Dahl barely broke even. Next, he came out with Red China Dirt—1-inch acrylic cubes filled with dirt allegedly smuggled out of mainland China and priced at $5. If enough Americans buy the cubes, said Dahl, "before long we'll have removed the entire country from under their noses. What I'm proposing is one of the sneakiest conquests in the history of the world." But President Carter played a dirty trick on Dahl by formally recognizing the People's Republic just two weeks after marketing began. Laments Dahl, 43: "End of joke, end of product."

Now he has switched to marketing other people's brainstorms. Dahl's new company, Project 80, charges clients an hourly rate for taking their ideas to the retail stage, and also demands a percentage of all royalties. Ads for Project 80 unabashedly trade on the glories of the past. One features a Pet Rock, its carrying case and the words: "This was one of our better ideas. Now show us one of yours."

So far, Dahl says, he's found the vast majority of proposals that come in "pretty dumb." One, submitted by more than a dozen different people and rejected every time, involves selling volcanic ash from Mount S. Helen's. "That's not funny," says Dahl. "Besides, my mother lives in Spokane."

Coffee Can: The company, located outside of San Jose, has 27 ideas that are in various stages of development. Among them: a "revolutionary" solar-heating device for swimming pools, a sculpture containing a fragment of debris from the fallen Skylab, and "Canned Earthquake"—a one-pound coffee can that can be wound up so that it jumps around the table. Dahl says Project 80 won't market a product "that has no intrinsic value." The coffee can? "That's an exception," admits Dahl. "There's always an exception to any rule."