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Crazy Business Ideas That Actually Worked: The Pet Rock

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How much was one joke worth?

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Sinking ship: Titanic. Evil tyrant: Hitler. Soft drink: Coca-Cola. Utterly useless product that flies off shelves anyway: Pet Rock.

Under the heading of frivolous fads there's no question about the category leader. The Pet Rock is the all-time champion of empty expenditure, the pinnacle of pointless, the retail equivalent of a parking ticket. Hula-hoops were silly, but they did something if you helped. Beatle wigs covered your head. Pet rocks? Nothing. No other product ever exemplified marketing in its purest, platonic ideal like the defining craze of 1975. It made millions before fading months later like a mysterious rash. Countless other products, all equally worthless, have attempted to replicate the Pet Rock's success. None have captured the public imagination like the inspired creation of Gary Dahl.

In 1975, Dahl was a 38-year-old advertising executive from Los Gatos, California. One day, listening to friends complain about their pets, he joked about the perfect low-maintenance companion: a rock. Dahl took his own joke seriously. He began writing a booklet describing the proper care and handling of a pet rock. Potty training was easy; teaching your pet to attack, a simple matter of aiming. Dahl packaged his rocks in little cardboard kennels complete with air holes and some straw to keep the little fellas comfy. Introduced at the San Francisco gift show in August 1975, the novelty item was later picked up by Neiman-Marcus. A Newsweek story led to an avalanche of press. The absurd prank had caught fire. Pet Rocks became a joke worth $3.95 each, and eventually 1.5 million people would pay to be in on it.

By the early months of 1976 the craze was over, the joke gone stale. But Dahl had already made his fortune. Each rock had cost him about $1 to produce. In 2004, he told the New York Times, "I put about $5 million of today's money in my pocket." (You could bump that up by half a million in 2010 dollars.) And the Pet Rock arguably made a pop-culture impact far exceeding its relatively modest sales figures. According to the Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, by Christmas 1975 three-quarters of all newspapers in the United States had run Pet Rock stories. Dahl himself made two appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. The Pet Rock became the template for marketing gimmicks. It was retail alchemy -- Dahl had taken nothing and, with some clever writing and cute packaging, turned it into gold.

Dahl's next attempt at creating a fad -- a "sand-breeding kit" -- was less successful. After a legal battle with two Pet Rock investors, Dahl was forced to pay a six-figure settlement in 1977.

But Dahl would have other pursuits. With proceeds from the Pet Rock he opened a bar, Carry Nations, in Los Gatos, and now runs a creative agency. In 2000 Dahl won the prestigious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing. He also wrote Advertising for Dummies and has been pitching a book about the Pet Rock phenomenon.

His most famous project lives on. A new USB Pet Rock marketed by ThinkGeek attaches the stone to a USB cable, which, when plugged in, takes up desk space. The rights to the basic model were purchased by Mego Corporation in 2009, so that a new generation will have the chance to waste money on something far less frustrating than Rubik's Cube.

Meanwhile, other geological hucksters have upped the ante. Mark Brown, a Yellowknife, North West Territories resident, has set up the website Rock of Ages NWT to sell chunks of the oldest known rock formations, discovered in the area 25 years ago and thought to be four billion years old. You can buy a chunk for $149.99. An extra hundred buys a display case. No straw.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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