Once upon a time, back in April 1975, a group of friends were having a drink in a bar in Bonny Doon, California. They chatted about the usual things one might expect and then began to complain about their pets and all of the effort it took to care for them. One member of the group, a man named Gary Dahl, quipped that his perfect pet was a rock. This got the group laughing and, to them, the idea of a pet rock just became a running joke. To Dahl, it was a pretty darn good joke and he immediately started writing what would become a 32-page training manual of how one is meant to care for a pet rock, filled with puns and silliness. Later that year, with a bit of ingenuity and quick-thinking, he brought it to market as an actual product. Yep, a Pet Rock on a little bed of straw in a carrier with a manual for $3.95 (which would be $18.50 in today’s dollars). It was an instant hit, garnering magazine articles and television appearances and over 1.5 million were sold in less than six months. Which, as it turns out, was also the length the fad would interest people. Less than a year after that conversation in the bar, the product was discontinued, but Dahl was now a millionaire. He was right about the joke being a good one, and happily laughed all the way to the bank.
Even though the official product was short-lived, the joke lived on and it was still a fun thing to have a pet rock for years after. I remember having one as a kid. I can’t remember what I named it, but I thought it was awesome. It’s perfectly ridiculous, and as a product, almost insanely so, but that’s why people loved it. That, and a magical timing of the year, when people had just been through Nixon’s resignation and the highest unemployment rate in years. A nationwide distraction came in the form of an unassuming rock in a box that delivered some much needed happiness and left its own little impact on history. As for Dahl, none of his other inventions over the next several years achieved the success of his Pet Rock. He would later use his marketing prowess to help others and even published Advertising For Dummies in 2007. He passed away in Jacksonville, Oregon in 2015, but left us with an unusual legacy in the form of one of the most memorable marketing ideas in recent times.
What I love about this story is that it’s a wonderful example of someone chasing even the craziest of ideas to completion. According to the L.A. Times, Dahl’s wife quipped after his death that it was just their second year of marriage when she would suddenly find herself searching for the “perfect” pet rocks on the beach with him. “I thought I had married a madman,” she said, and I have to think that anyone who marries a creative person must feel this very same thing at some point in life. There are people who have ideas and then there are those determined people who actually make them happen. And even a rock in a box inspires me to reconsider all of my own crazy ideas that have simply been spinning around in my head. Thinking about clever things is wonderful, but in the end, it’s doing those things that matters most. That idea for a painting, amazing invention, or the next great novel. Ideas are nothing until they’re manifested and shared with others to enjoy as well. So, I hope all of my fellow dreamers out there will also be inspired to actually DO that thing and complete the project that’s been burning in your heart. When we finally do it, even if it’s not a million dollar success, we can always enjoy the event for its bold ingenuity as we happily celebrate our very own little Pet Rock Day.
About the Doodlewash
Da Vinci Paint Co.: Aureolin, Vermilion, and Indigo (My “Vintage” Trio!). Lamy Al-Star Safari Fountain Pen with sepia ink in an A5 Hahnemühle Watercolour Book. Want to purchase a print of this doodlewash? Send me a note with a link to this post, and I’ll add it to my shop!