Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
If you’re under the age of 40, you might be surprised to learn that the “Pet Rock” was (and technically still is) an actual product—I can honestly say that I was, when I first found out. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I always just assumed “pet rock” was one of those universal one- or two-word jokes with no punchline, sort of like “ABC gum” or “NOT!” or “supralapsarianism.” But no, not only was the Pet Rock a genuine product you could find in stores in the mid-’70s—presumably between the Pong machines and the bell-bottoms—it somehow became the hottest gift of the 1975 Christmas season and made its creator a millionaire overnight, leaving everyone else scratching their heads and wondering why they hadn’t thought of selling rocks for four bucks each.
They hadn’t thought of it, of course, because there was no real reason for something like the Pet Rock to become a momentary national obsession—hundreds of equally stupid products hit store shelves every year without making so much as a dent in the public consciousness. So why did the Pet Rock tip off such a (wait for it) landslide? Apparently, dumb luck—or more specifically, a perfect storm of timing and tone.Dahl wasn’t selling people rocks—not really—he was selling them a joke.
The Pet Rock was the brainchild of “freelance” (read: out-of-work) ad copywriter Gary Dahl, a North Dakota native who was living in California. He was out drinking with some friends, and the talk turned to the difficulties and annoyances of caring for a pet, because it was the 1970s and interesting conversation topics hadn’t been invented yet. “It sure is nice to have a furry/feathered/scaly friend,” his drinking buddies agreed, “but man, is it a pain to have to walk it / clean out its litter box / do whatever it is you have to do for a snake.” This is the moment when most of us would have started putting out personals ads for friends who were less boring, but instead of that, Dahl said to himself, Hmm, there might be a good idea in there somewhere.
What if, Dahl asked himself, there was a pet you didn’t have to take care of? No, not the goldfish your girlfriend left with you while she’s traveling on business, and you don’t really care about because you were going to break up with her anyway, and hey is it supposed to be floating upside-down like that—something even less demanding than that. Soon, Dahl had his big idea; all he needed were some rocks, some straw, some pamphlets, and some of those distinctive cartons you take pets home from pet stores in—plus a bit of that copywriting magic.
It was, of course, a profoundly stupid idea, but it wasn’t hard to get investors on board when Dahl made it clear there was no financial risk. Rocks, being the thing the earth is principally made of, were cheap—about a penny each—and straw is something that farmers will practically pay you to haul away. The box and the pamphlet, meanwhile, were just paper, and Dahl got them for almost nothing as well, by tacking them onto a larger, unrelated print job he was already ordering. So, for about a nickel, he was able to assemble a novelty item that he then sold for $3.95, or about $18.50 in today’s money.
By the time Christmas rolled around, they were flying off shelves.
If your takeaway from all this is I can’t believe people spent four bucks on something they could just pick up off the ground! then you really don’t get it. Dahl wasn’t selling people rocks—not really—he was selling them a joke. The rock, the box, the straw—it was all, ultimately, just elaborate packaging for the care-and-feeding pamphlet that came with it. “To teach your PET ROCK to FETCH,” the inexplicably capitalized pamphlet instructed proud new owners, “throw a stick or ball as far as you can. Next, throw your PET ROCK as far as you can. Rarely, if ever, will your PET ROCK return with the object, but that’s the way it goes.”
Clearly, these weren’t Pulitzer-worthy knee-slappers, but they were funny enough, and of course an indispensable part of the joke was the sheer audacity it took to market the product in the first place. It’s also worth considering the timing involved: it was 1975, about a year after President Nixon resigned, thus putting a giant exclamation point on some of the United States’ most turbulent years; people wanted something innocent to make them smile, and, well, Star Wars was still a year and a half away.
If that doesn’t quite explain the phenomenon, it might be instructive to flash forward a bit and take a look at some of Dahl’s ill-fated attempts at a follow-up. In addition to opening a bar he named after a radical Temperance activist (wait, how can you be radically for temperance?), Dahl put his newly earned millions into several other novelty products, none of which caught fire the way the Pet Rock had. Some of the more unfortunate examples included a “sand breeding kit”—in which proud new owners were instructed to mix vials of “male” and “female” sand to breed their own desert—and a tube of red dirt from China that he marketed as a way to buy the entire country out from under the Chinese (“What I’m proposing is one of the sneakiest conquests in the history of the world”). Aside from being obvious attempts to catch lightning in a bottle more than once, these products differed from the Pet Rock in at least one meaningful way: they’re not the sort of thing that anyone can laugh at. Once you start poking at things like sex and politics, you’re necessarily limiting your audience.
And yeah, there’s probably a lesson in there for humorists and comedians. A lot of ink has been spilled in the last decade about how comedy should “punch up,” “speak truth to power,” etc., but if I’m being honest… I’m kind of sick of political jokes these days? And I kind of doubt I’m the only one.
I know there are some who find it gratifying to see the late-night hosts go after Trump (a clear analog for Nixon if there ever was one), night after night, but I’ve found myself actively avoiding that stuff in recent years. It’s not that I’m a Trump supporter; it’s just that the same old jokes every night are a drag. The criticisms are often accurate, but they do little to change anything and go a long way toward making me hate the people around me—which is hardly a way to go through life, especially if you’re someone who aspires to follow Jesus.
I’m not saying there’s no room in the world for political jokes, offensive jokes, etc. (there’s little hope for me if there’s not); I am saying that jokes don’t have to tear down and divide. That there’s nothing bad or wrong about telling innocent jokes that bring people together. That not everything has to be a movement. Some things can just be helping people get through the day.
They won’t necessarily build monuments to you for telling jokes like that. But—as we folksy copywriters like to say—that’s the way it goes.