Years before the Cabbage Patch craze, before the toy company that held the original license for Star Wars toys sold empty boxes at Christmas because they couldn't keep up with demand--there was Gary Dahl's invention.
It was 40 years ago this December, that Dahl (who died earlier this year) sold 1.5 million pet rocks to Americans--at a time when there were only about 216 million people in the country. By the end of the Christmas season of 1975, it was almost all over.
For a while, Dahl was held up in America as the model of an entrepreneur. (Jobs and Wozniak were tinkering in a garage, Gates was setting up shop in New Mexico; yet, Dahl--a former "freelance copywriter," which he said was a euphemism for being unemployed--was the one being featured on The Tonight Show and in Time magazine.)
In truth, it was all in the marketing. Inc. wrote about him and his success back in the 1990s:
More so than any other product, the Pet Rock seems the quintessential fad. Dressing up a barroom quip... [Dahl sold] ordinary beach pebbles at $4 a pop, proving packaging is all. Hearing his friends complain about how expensive it was to care for their dogs, Gary Dahl joked about his pet rock and was soon writing a spoof of a dog-training manual.
(That said, find me another product that achieves nearly a .7 percent market penetration of the entire United States in just five months. It was like a mineral that went viral--long before social media.)
"My advice to those who succeed with a fad?" he told Inc. in 1994. "Enjoy it while it lasts. The Pet Rock was fun, but I let it go on a year too long. I wanted that next year. I believed my own publicity, and I think my ego got in the way of my common sense."