Inexplicable 1970s sensation turned struggling copywriter into a millionaire.
People ran around naked in public. They burned their bras—figuratively, not literally. Long hair and unconventional clothing, which began with the hippies of the 1960s, were now standard for many Americans.
The 1970s were known for individualism. The Me Decade was a time to do what made us feel good, a time when more than just young people were challenging authority and societal norms. Unconventional and weird were widely accepted.
So if Chuck Barris could turn “The Gong Show” into a national obsession, why couldn’t Gary Dahl do the same with the Pet Rock?
One trick: Play dead
Dahl’s multimillion-dollar “invention” started in 1975 in a bar in Los Gatos, a wealthy California town about an hour south of San Francisco at the base of the Sierra Azules. He told People magazine that his friends were complaining about the many responsibilities of owning pets—feeding, medical bills, training, etc.—when he boasted that he had no such problems. “I have a pet rock,” he said he told them, jokingly.
The country was reeling in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, then a recession driven by an oil shortage. So the down-on-his-luck advertising copywriter soon put his creative talents to work on a light-hearted, highly ambitious marketing plan. With the help of some investors, he gathered thousands of “egg-shaped Mexican beach stones, (each) nestled on a bed of excelsior and packaged in a little doggy carrying case, equipped with breathing holes,” according to People.
When the curiosity hit the market just before Christmas that year, the genius was in more than the presentation. A key selling point that had the product flying off shelves in stores from Neiman-Marcus to Bloomingdale’s—at $3.95 apiece—was “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock,” a clever pamphlet inside. “If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers,” the instructions said. Suggested tricks included the Roll Over (best done on a hillside) and the Play Dead (which rocks could do all by themselves).
The Pet Rock joined disco as one of the more inexplicable phenomena of the 1970s. Dahl appeared on “The Tonight Show” as his creation received coverage in national newspapers and magazines. Longtime comedian Art Carney told People that he had five of the rocks: “They’re wonderful. You don’t have to feed them, take them for walks—and you can leave them for months and they’re fine when you get back.”
Life changed immediately for Dahl and his wife, Marguerite. They started an assembly line in their small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, he told the Washington Post in 1977. Within six weeks, they needed 300 more people to do the work.
After the buzz
Although Dahl was referred to as the inventor of the Pet Rock in obituaries that followed his 2015 death at 78, he never filed for a patent or trademark. Maybe he didn’t get around to it—or maybe he figured that by the time his patent was approved, his fad creation would have run its course.
That assumption would have proven correct, of course. The Pet Rock buzz lasted all of a year, if that, by which time Dahl estimated he had sold 1.5 million units. That was enough time to make him a rich man, driving a Mercedes and buying a swimming pool. Marguerite Dahl said he designed and built the Carry Nations Saloon in Los Gatos.
But wealth and fame came with burdens. Dahl was reportedly sued by one of the Pet Rock’s original investors and had to pay a six-figure settlement. Gimmick inventors crawled out of the woodwork to pepper him with the next Pet Rock.
“I’m sick of the whole damn thing,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “Most inventors call me because they’ve come up with their own novelty idea. A pet stick or pet poop or pet gravel. I’ve seen them all—they’re all bad. …
“There’s a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living. Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn’t have been simpler if I hadn’t done it.”
The Chronicle dispassionately summarized his life, post-Pet Rock: “Dahl got rich, got cocky, had a damn good time, opened a bar, bought a big house, drank too much.” He “sold his bar, dreamed up a few clever but cataclysmic marketing flops, took up golf, got a real job, sued, got sued, felt betrayed.”
Such an account may not be totally accurate or complete. Dahl wrote “Advertising for Dummies,” originally published in 2001, which has had a longer shelf life and relevance than many books. The publication also provided a glimpse into the simplistic marketing genius that made his Pet Rock an unlikely hit—even though it has little collectible value today.
“In short: Write the way people think,” Dahl advised. “Nike knew what it was doing when it coined the slogan ‘Just do it.’”
Could the Pet Rock Be Patented Today?
The blog Patent Club addressed the question:
“There is no way to patent a rock as a rock. As of a few years ago, U.S. patent law allows genetically modified organisms to be protected, although the Pet Rock wasn’t really one of those.
“If the Pet Rock were a new invention, it would have required a utility patent. Utility patents must meet three criteria to be approved: novelty, non-obviousness and utility (usefulness). In other words, it has to be a new idea, one that would not strike an expert in the field as obvious, and it must have some use. Although it may sound ridiculous, when it was introduced the Pet Rock met these criteria: It was a new idea, it was hardly obvious to geologists or toymakers, and it had utility, i.e., it made people laugh.
“With a really good patent lawyer, Dahl might have been able to get a utility patent to protect the Pet Rock as a new invention. The easier route would have been to trademark a design, etch it onto the rock, and to acquire a design patent on rocks etched with that trademark or logo.”