It's somehow fitting that the news would break just before April Fools' Day: The New York Times reports that Gary Dahl, inventor of the Pet Rock, died on March 23, at 78 years old.
But to equate the Pet Rock to an April Fools' Day gag is an oversimplification of its appeal. When it debuted in 1975, the Pet Rock was the perfect combination of three decades' ethos: it had the whimsy of the 1960s, the ironic, absurdist sensibility of the '70s, and the consumerism of the imminent '80s. But more important than that, it was a viral joke years before YouTube was even a word.
Yes, it was ultimately just a rock in a box. But Dahl proved that a well-executed rock in a box could become a phenomenon.
The Pet Rock's "instruction manual" showed why it was so amazing
Gary Dahl was an ad man looking for a good idea when he came up with the idea for the Pet Rock. As Dahl told People magazine in 1975, the idea came during a bar conversation when he realized, "People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems. This takes them on a fantasy trip — you might say we've packaged a sense of humor."
But the Pet Rock wasn't just a good idea. It was a good idea that was executed with extreme precision. The rocks were just Mexican beach stones, but the packaging was meticulous: each one came on a bed of straw with a carrying case (with holes) and, most important, an instruction manual. The manual began with the sensitivity of a Dr. Spock book, warning owners to be careful with their new pet:
Your new rock is a very sensitive pet and may be slightly traumatized from all the handling and shipping required in bringing the two of you together.
The rest of the manual details the amazing tricks a Pet Rock can do. Among other things, it's very good at sitting:
That entire package — rock, carrying case, straw, and manual — worked together to create a gag gift that seemed effortless. Any one component wouldn't have worked, but together, the entire package fascinated the nation.
In an age long before the internet could spread ideas in an instant, Dahl was selling 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. By the time the fad started to die down, he'd sold at least 1.3 million of his Pet Rock kits. (A hit as big as the Pet Rock inspired some controversy, of course. Dahl ended up being sued for money by his business partner, George Coakley, and was forced to pay out.)
The Pet Rock was a precursor to today's unpredictable viral hits
So what made the Pet Rock so popular? Even Dahl wasn't sure.
His subsequent creations were a flop by comparison — they included Red China Dirt and the Official Sand Breeding Kit (the latter had male and female test tubes filled with sand that the owner could breed). Neither approached the Pet Rock's hit status, and eventually Dahl grew irritated by the notoriety of his big hit. "I'm sick of the whole damn thing," he told one reporter in 1999.
It's impossible to say why the Pet Rock succeeded where other bizarre ideas failed. It might be because the idea and execution of the original were so perfect that any new idea paled in comparison.
In a way, that makes it a precursor to today's mysterious viral hits. Why does one blue-and-black (or gold-and-white) dress go viral, but countless other optical illusions fall flat? Why does a video of Charlie biting a kid's finger become iconic while another video of the same kids is cute but boring?
The Pet Rock exploited a viral joke for significant profit even though Dahl couldn't quite understand the ingredients that made it work. It's tempting to come up with a theory of why the Pet Rock became a phenomenon, but if anyone knew for sure, there'd be a lot more of these former fads cluttering our closets. For most of us, there's only one pet still there.