Editor’s note: This story was published on Nov. 14, 1999
One day in the throes of the holiday shopping season of 1975, Gary Dahl walked into a San Jose area Mercedes dealership.
Times were good, too good to be driving a tiny Honda. This new novelty called the Pet Rock was flying off store shelves and he was the guy who “invented” it. Newsweek wrote about the gimmick. Neiman Marcus was the first to stock it. About the same time and in the same area, soon to be known as Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were coming up with the Apple computer.
Accompanying Dahl in search of new cars that day were two backers of the rock, George Coakley and John Heagerty, who ran an advertising agency and put up money to get production going.
When it came time to pay for the three Mercedes, Dahl stepped forward, raised his arm and said, “You guys got lunch. I’ll get these.”
Those were the days. Money was flowing, and the Pet Rock made Dahl feel as if he could simultaneously mock and rule the business world. People referred to him as a creative genius. After all, the $4 Pet Rock was about absolutely nothing – and it was making him rich.
As inane and empty as it was, the Pet Rock is a classic tale of American business – complete with its rise and fall, its headaches and heartbreaks. After the Pet Rock boom: Dahl got rich, got cocky, had a damn good time, opened a bar, bought a big house, drank too much, nearly ruined his marriage, sold his bar, dreamed up a few clever but cataclysmic marketing flops, took up golf, got a real job, sued, got sued, felt betrayed, became embittered, made his lawyer rich, quit sailing, got another real job, put his one big idea behind him, became sick of it, started getting really sick of talking about IT, got so fed up with IT he wanted to gag, then ...
Ring, ring, ring. It's The Bee calling to talk about IT.
“How the hell did you get my number?” Dahl growled from his Los Gatos home on a recent weekday when he had stayed home sick from the advertising business he owns. His number is unlisted.
He promptly turned down a request to talk about the Pet Rock. “I'm sick of the whole damn thing,” he said.
After some prodding, Dahl softened and agreed to an interview, partly because he’s not really sick of it and he’s not really an old grump. He only likes to make people think he is. In fact, the original Pet Rock prototype sits in its box in Dahl’s office right next to photos of his grandchildren.
The Pet Rock is a part of business history, firmly established in its lore. The Encyclopedia of Pop Culture calls Dahl “one of the great motivational figures of recent times.” A 1980 Newsweek article called the Pet Rock “one of the most ridiculously successful marketing schemes ever.”
Everyone seems to remember the Pet Rock, even people born after 1975. Students in college marketing classes often ask professors to explain the phenomenon. Dahl paid less than a penny per rock from a local sand and gravel company and sold 1.3 million of them.
The Pet Rock has become part of the American lexicon, too, used to describe something empty or meaningless, something cynical, something dumb or brilliant, something long forgotten, anything faddish. You could say your ex-boyfriend was as exciting as a Pet Rock. A congressman once said the Star Wars Defense Initiative had as much chance of working as a Pet Rock. As for fads, some might call the top-selling Furby the Pet Rock of 1998.
“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,” Dahl said, reclining behind his desk, where he now writes radio and TV ads for eight regional accounts. Some of his ads can be heard on Sacramento radio stations.
Evan Roberts, a 16-year-old from Long Island, may be the latest to get into the rock gimmick business. He’s selling black rocks as Lenium, a lucky charm for the new millennium. It sells for $3 plus $2 postage. Roberts doesn’t know who Dahl is, but the Pet Rock creator is still an inspiration.
“I tell my friends this guy sold a lot of Pet Rocks and made a fortune,” said Roberts by telephone. “I'd like to follow in his footsteps.”
What most people forget is that along with the rock came a witty little book – “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock” – that parodied dog training manuals and made the gag complete.
If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers. 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.
“At the time, the Vietnam War was winding down, Watergate had just started up,” explained Dahl, who with his thick mop of a gray beard is a cross between Kris Kringle and Ernest Hemingway. “There was a whole lot of bad news going on. People were down. It wasn’t a real good time for the national psyche. I think the Pet Rock was just a good giggle. Everybody needed a good laugh and the media ate it up.”
Eugene Fram, the J. Warren McClure Research Professor of marketing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says classic marketing principles can explain the Pet Rock phenomenon.
“It was at a time when there had been no novelty item for several years. It was inexpensive and it came out at Christmas,” Fram said. “When you put that all together, there was some marketing rationale to it. It solved a problem for the buyer.”
Few realize all that went on behind the scenes and the lengths to which Dahl went to make his idea work. It all started as a gag at a Los Gatos bar. Dahl’s buddies were talking about their pets and the problems they created. Soiled carpets, shoes tattered and torn.
“I have a pet rock,” Dahl announced. They all laughed and started weighing in with all the reasons to have a rock for a pet. While they went home and nursed hangovers, Dahl went to work, writing the Pet Rock manual and looking for ways to make it sell. He barely slept and admits he became obsessed with succeeding. He hooked up with a designer who packaged the book with an actual rock in a miniature cardboard dog crate. It was a hit at the San Francisco gift show. The orders started coming in.
Some friends at the bar that night never spoke to him again, accusing him of being an opportunist, a sellout, a jerk.
“I think maybe they figured I did something commercial with something they thought was a private conversation – who knows. One of us had to walk out and do it, it just happened to be me. We were all quasi dropouts at the time.”
Then came the lawsuit from Coakley Heagerty Companies Ltd., not long after Dahl bought the two of them luxury cars. They wanted their fair share. Each would accuse the other of greed. The judge sided with the ad agency and Dahl had to write a six-figure check. Once good friends, Dahl won’t have anything to do with Coakley or Heagerty.
“We would have liked to have continued a relationship with Gary,” Heagerty said in a recent interview, “but money has a divisive element to it. Gary got rich quick and then he wanted more than he deserved.”
Dahl explains it differently. “The same people who were so enthusiastic about helping me get this thing off the ground got greedy. It was not pleasant and it didn't leave it with a happy ending. That's the reality of the whole thing. This wonderful story, there was a dark side to it, too.”
Coakley went on to become an advertising professor at San Jose State University, partly because of the Pet Rock mystique. He has continued to market ideas and gimmicks, including the first musical greeting card and something called Boyfriend-In-a-Box for women who want to create their own boyfriend character. In a recent interview, the 71-year-old Coakley said he's expecting to make a killing on something called Absorb-it, a 99-cent sponge-like product that draws fat out of cooked food.
Referring to the broken relationship with Dahl, Coakley said, “We had a lot of fun. It’s sad that Gary and I didn’t remain buddies. We were both guys with short fuses.”
All these years later, there's still an element of competition between the former friends. Dahl used some of his Pet Rock money to buy a 5,200-square-foot house in Los Gatos, a prestigious community in suburban San Jose.
When asked to describe his lifestyle, Coakley allows that his house isn’t as big as Dahl’s, “but it's higher up the hill.”
Dahl calls Coakley “pathetic.”
After awhile, Dahl tires of talking about the Pet Rock. He seems agitated. He’s heard so many dumb ideas from people who call him, who want to know his secret. There wasn’t one.
In 1975, Gary Dahl was smart and lucky and he worked obsessively to make the Pet Rock a success. Then it ended, disappearing forever after about four months in stores.
He doesn’t get paid when annoying people call with even emptier ideas than the Pet Rock. He’s got work to do, ads to write.
“I don’t help inventors. I’d like you to put that in your article,” Dahl said, playing the grump again. “Tell them not to call me.”
Don't call him.