He was like any of us, just somebody with a dream-and a rock. It was April 1975 when Gary Dahl, a California ad man, started grousing about the chores of taking care of a pet. Suddenly, Dahl was spinning a yarn to his friends about his pet rock-which had a great personality, and was easy and inexpensive to care for. And so simple to train: With just a little help, pet rocks roll over and play dead very well.
Dahl, then 37, recognized a potential gag gift and spent several months writing the Pet Rock Training Manual. (Sample instructions on house-training: "Place it on some old newspapers. The rock...will require no further instruction.") He included a rock with each book and charged $3.95 for the set. (In 1999's dollars, that would be $11.25.)
To even his own amazement, Dahl sold 1.5 million.
P.T. Barnum is reported to have said, "There's a sucker born every minute." You have to wonder what ol' Barnum would have made of a late-20th-century America that's gone mad for everything from pet rocks to Pop Rocks, from Cabbage Patch Kids to Beanie Babies. But if the consumer receives pleasure from a product, and if the product does what it's purported to, who is anybody to call anybody else a sucker?
In fact, cigarettes may be the only true sucker product: If you use them correctly, they're virtually guaranteed to kill you in a slow, painful way. Pork rinds have to be a close second. (Think about it. Pieces of fried fat in a bag?)
So if you want to create a sucker for your product, remember, it's all in the eye of the beholder-or the wallet of the consumer. Regardless, the products featured in this story are far from obvious, slam-dunk sells. But these entrepreneurs made them their business anyway, and in a big way.
Geoff Williams has never forgotten a touching father-and-son moment in the late 1970s when his dad drew his young boy aside and said, "Son, this is my pet rock." "I'd like to say I thought he was crazy," Williams admits, "but I suddenly wanted one, too."
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.