In addition to a couple of readers disagreeing that remote controls for car radios are designed for, and marketed to immature men, I also got this comment following last week’s essay on creating demand:

McKay, read your claim that advertising can’t create a market. Would you please explain Pet Rocks? Surely there wasn’t a market for them before they were sold? – Jill”

Pet Rocks get quoted every few years as an example of advertising that created demand for a product no one needed. That’s not really what happened.

In early 1975 a Los Gatos, California advertising executive named Gary Dahl had stopped for a beer after work, when his friends started complaining about the lack of time they had for their pets.

Dahl started riffing on his pet rock, which required very little attention. Gary’s pet never kept the neighbors up by barking. It didn’t chew on or shed on the furniture. It ate nothing, and never forgot to go on the paper.

His buddies cracked up, then went home to nurse their hangovers. Dahl stayed and started toying with an idea.

For the next two weeks he wrote a step-by-step guide to having a happy relationship with your geological pet: the Pet Rock Training Manual.

“Sit” and “stay” were fairly easy to teach. So was “play dead.”

“Roll over” usually required extra effort on the part of the trainer.

“Come” was determined to be impossible to teach reliably.

Housetraining was elegantly simple: “Place it on some old newspapers. The rock will never know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction.”

Dahl tried to find a buyer for his new book. No one seemed interested.

I did mention that Gary was an advertising man, didn’t I? As a stunt to promote the book, Dahl created actual pet rocks. He purchased Rosarita beach stones from a building supply store at a penny each, packaged them in gift boxs which resembled pet carriers complete with air holes.

He took them to the annual San Francisco gift show in August. Each book came with a Pet Rock. Neiman-Marcus immediately ordered 500.

Dahl quickly determined that the book was unnecessary. People seemed to want the rocks.

By the following month Dahl was shipping up to ten thousand per day. By Christmas he’d sold nearly one and one half million.

By January most daily newspapers had run Pet Rock stories – including Dahl’s claim that “each rock was individually tested for obedience at Rosarita Beach in Baja, Mexico before being selected and boxed.” He appeared on the Tonight Show twice and was featured in Newsweek.

A number of imitators tried to cash in on Dahl’s notoriety and rushed their own products to market, including Pet Rock Obedience Lessons and Pet Rock Burial-at-Sea Services.

Note: if you ever come across a “Genuine Pet Rock,” you can be assured that it’s fake. Dahl never used the term “genuine.”

They were, however, too late. By January the fad was over.

Yes, people use the Pet Rock as an example of advertising having created demand for a useless product.

I contend that the demand was already there, and that the rock wasn’t useless.
Remember the mood of the country in 1975.

As the 60’s came to a close Americans witnessed the daily killing of young men in Viet Nam as television brought the war into our living rooms.

A former Rand Corporation military analyst leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. We learned that our government knew early on that the war would not likely be won. We learned that they knew the war would lead to many times more casualties than had been admitted publicly.

We also learned that our President had been involved in an illegal break-in of the office of his political opponents.

Woodstock became acknowledged as the official end of unfettered optimism and free love.

The introspective singer-songwriter of the 60’s had been replaced by the cynical rocker of the 70’s.

The U.S. was experiencing a major financial recession.

We lined up for hours to fill our tanks as the first Arab Oil Embargo gripped the nation.

It was a grim time. By mid 1975 we needed a good laugh, and the Pet Rock provided one. The Pet Rock hit the market, peaked, and was over in that tiny window of opportunity which existed in the four and a half months between the August gift show and Christmas. Had Dahl had the idea two years earlier or two years later it would likely have been a total flop.

A joke is only funny the first time, though. The Pet Rock spin offs didn’t even get any chuckles. Since one laugh in such a grim time wasn’t enough, we quickly became enamored of toe socks, mood rings, Deely Bobbers, Wall Walkers, and streaking.

The Pet Rock was the beneficiary of timing, but it wasn’t useless. The Pet Rock was just silly enough that people could forget the dreariness of their everyday lives and have some fun.

And that demand for a good laugh already existed, even though people hadn’t expressed it.