Obituaries

Remembering Gary Dahl, the Marketing Magician Who Made Millions Selling Pet Rocks

Remembering Gary Dahl, the Marketing Magician Who Made Millions Selling Pet Rocks
Image credit: Pet Rock

What began as a joke hatched in a bar turned into one of the most bizarrely successful marketing schemes of all time. And the Pet Rock, an egg-shaped stone sold for $3.95 a pop, turned its creator, Gary Dahl, into a millionaire almost overnight.

Dahl, an ad copywriter-turned-branding mastermind, passed away at age 78 on March 23 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, The New York Times reports. Though the evanescent success of the Pet Rock may have faded soon after its 1975 launch, the notoriety of his brainchild lives on.

Chatting about the myriad responsibilities of owning pets over drinks in the mid-‘70s, Dahl joked to friends that he had the perfect pet: a rock -- before suddenly realizing he’d stumbled upon a viable product.

The rocks were purchased for a penny a piece from a beach in Mexico, but consumers were captivated by the clever packaging. Cardboard carrying cases were punctured with air holes and each stone was ensconced in a kind of straw-like nest. Each came with its own manual, which detailed care instructions.

Related: Soy Sauce Bottle Designer, Dead at 85, Was Inspired to Create in Destruction's Wake

“You might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor,” Dahl told People in 1975.

While 1.5 million rocks sold in a matter of months, making Dahl rich, his sudden success came at a cost. Although he trademarked the product name, many others sold their own packaged rocks, and his two initial investors won a six-figure suit alleging that they had been unfairly compensated.

Additionally, follow-up products -- including a Bicentennial Pet Rock, mail-order college degrees for the stones and an Original Sand Breeding Kit -- failed to catch on. So Dahl opened a saloon and then a sailboat brokerage before returning to advertising, authoring the book Advertising for Dummies in 2001.

In his latter years, Dahl expressed mixed feelings about the Pet Rock. “I’m sick of the whole damn thing,” he told The Topeka Capital-Journal in 1999. “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.”

Related: The Entrepreneurial Backstory of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Creator R.A. Montgomery

Edition: December 2016

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