The onetime advertising copywriter who grew up in Spokane and invented the Pet Rock during a conversation with a friend in a bar, complaining about the work involved in caring for a pet, died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on March 28 in Jacksonville, Ore.
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 1 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.
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.
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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.
A modern incarnation of “Stone Soup” as stirred by P.T. Barnum, 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 (depending on whether it is uttered with contempt or admiration) a useless entity or a meteoric success.
But despite the boon Pet Rocks brought him, Dahl came to regret the brainstorm that gave rise to them in the first place.
Dahl’s brainstorm began, as many do, in a bar.
One night in the mid-’70s, he was having a drink in Los Gatos, the Northern California town where he lived for many years. At the time, he was a freelance copywriter (“that’s another word for being broke,” he later said), living in a small cabin as a self-described “quasi-dropout.”
The bar talk turned to pets, and to the onus of feeding, walking and cleaning up after them.
His pet, Dahl announced in a flash of bibulous inspiration, caused him no such trouble. The reason?
“I have a pet rock,” he explained.
A pet rock, Dahl quickly realized, might just have legs.
“People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems,” he told People magazine in 1975. “This takes them on a fantasy trip — you might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor.”
He recruited two colleagues as investors, visited a building-supply store and bought a load of smooth Mexican beach stones at about a penny apiece.
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.
“I had one phone to each ear,” Dahl recalled in a 2011 interview. “I taught my PR guy to impersonate me so he could also answer my calls.”
Dahl traded his Honda for a Mercedes and moved into a house with a swimming pool, which was larger than his cabin had been.
While Pet Rocks were the must-have gift of the 1975 holiday season, they soon went the way of all fads. The idea’s very simplicity proved its undoing: Though Dahl trademarked the name, there was nothing to stop someone from putting a rock into a box and selling it, and many did. Nor did the spate of auxiliary businesses that sprang up around his creation — the official Bicentennial Pet Rock, inscribed with an American flag; mail-order college degrees for Pet Rocks ($3 for a bachelor’s, $10 for a Ph.D.) — bring him any compensation.
In the late ’70s, Dahl was sued by his original investors, who claimed they had received too small a share of the profits. A court found in their favor, and he was obliged to pay a six-figure judgment.
His later inventions, including the Original Sand Breeding Kit, which let buyers grow their “own desert wasteland,” never matched the success of Pet Rocks.
Dahl’s first marriage, to Barbara Eisiminger, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Melinda Aucott. 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.
On the proceeds of Pet Rocks, Dahl opened a saloon and ran a sailboat brokerage before returning to advertising. He was the author of “Advertising for Dummies,” first published in 2001.
Dahl, a resident most recently of Jacksonville, was also vastly proud of having won, in 2000, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which honors deliberately dreadful prose. (His winning entry began, “The heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a crowded pub, hunched precariously over the moors.”)
But in the end, it is for the Pet Rock that he will be remembered. 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.”