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Did You Know That: Pet Rock creator born in ND fooled 'em all some of the time

Gary Dahl convinced many Americans to purchase an item they did not need, and it was something that almost everyone had free in their own backyard. In late 1975 and early 1976, 1.5 million people paid Dahl $3.95 for a "pet rock."...

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Gary Dahl in 1975 with the Pet Rock, a product that sold for $3.95 and made him a millionaire practically overnight.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "You can fool all the people some of the time." I don't know if that is true, but I do know that a North Dakota-born advertising executive came closer than most. Gary Dahl convinced many Americans to purchase an item they did not need, and it was something that almost everyone had free in their own backyard. In late 1975 and early 1976, 1.5 million people paid Dahl $3.95 for a "pet rock."

His professional description in the press ranged from a "mountebank" (quack medicine salesman) to a "marketing genius." Pet rocks were showcased on the Tonight Show and written about in nearly all of the major publications. In terms of fad appeal, it rivaled the Hula Hoop, and the rocketing sales "phenomena is still taught in college marketing classes."

Gary Ross Dahl was born Dec. 18, 1936, in Bottineau, N.D., to Richard and La Vone/Lavonne (Ferm) Dahl. For the most part, Richard went by Arnold, his middle name, and was employed at the local movie theater as the projectionist. In the early 1940s, the Dahls moved to Spokane, Wash., where Arnold found employment at a lumber mill. As a youngster, Gary's parents divorced, and he said he was "an obnoxious brat, somewhere between a juvenile delinquent and just a bad kid." In January 1954, he said he enlisted with the Marine Corps "to straighten myself out."

After his discharge three years later, Dahl enrolled at the State College of Washington (now Washington State University), but before graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, where he found some "art jobs." He then designed signs in San Diego and did "architectural renderings for San Jose property developments." In 1964, Dahl met George Coakley, who three years earlier had formed an advertising firm with John Heagerty. Coakley Heagerty Inc. specialized in advertising for California home builders. "Coakley thought Dahl had the makings of an account executive and gave him a job." Dahl said, "It was then that I discovered I could write."

With his new found confidence, Dahl decided to venture into business by himself. When that failed, he returned to his former position at Coakley Hegerty. Dahl purchased a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Los Gatos and, along with his wife, Marguerite, began acquiring pets. By 1975, they had two German shepherds, two cats, two goats, two chickens, and a guinea pig. At a bar in Los Gatos, on April 19, Dahl and his buddies were bemoaning the fact that pets required a certain amount of care. One of his friends said, "wouldn't it be nice to have a care-free pet?" Dahl replied, "How about a pet rock?" It was meant as a joke, but he also thought it had merit.

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When Dahl returned to his cabin, he talked it over with Marguerite, and she thought it might work. He first wrote a training manual and then walked along the beach looking for just the right kind of rocks. Dahl gathered up enough rocks to make a few prototypes and hired the company's graphic artist to design a logo and carrying case. He "introduced the novelty at the San Francisco Gift Show in August, followed by the New York Show."

Dahl returned home with "4,500 firm sales." Coakley became a partner by investing $10,000, and Dahl contracted to purchase 10,000 kits. He and Marguerite sent out the first orders from their cabin on November 3. The orders rapidly increased from 1,000 to 100,000 a day, and by December, Dahl was a millionaire. He was contacted by a country music company to compose a song, so he wrote My Pet Rock Shep. Soon there were national pet rock competitions, and Dahl believed he had something sustainable. He began planning many pet rock offshoots and accessories like shampoo, food, obedience training school t-shirts, and books.

Dahl's next creation, released in time for Christmas sales in 1976 was the "Original Sand Breeding Kit." It allowed "buyers to grow their own desert wasteland." Dahl's fads had run their course, and he was left with thousands of kits that had to be disposed of.

Tension was growing between Dahl, Coakley, and another investor. The investors "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" from the sale of pet rocks and sued Dahl. A court ruled in favor of the investors, and Dahl "was obliged to pay a six figure judgment." Because he was no longer a part of Coakley Heagerty Inc., Dahl missed a great financial opportunity when they became "Silicon Valley's first advertising and marketing agency."

Frank Darien Jr., a noted California disc jockey and son of a prolific Hollywood character actor, had an advertising agency called Darien, Russell, & Hill. He contacted Dahl and asked him to be his company's creative director and business partner. Dahl became the company's vice president.

He later started Gary Dahl Creative Services which specialized in electronic advertising. In that capacity he wrote and produced "hundreds of television commercials and thousands of radio commercials." In 2000, Dahl won the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for purposely writing an opening sentence to a novel that says, "the most dreadful prose." He beat out over 4,000 other entries. In 2001, Dahl authored the self-help book, Advertising for Dummies. He retired in 2006 and, with his wife, Marguerite, moved to Jacksonville, Ore., where he died on March 23, 2015. The death of the man credited with tricking over a million people into buying a worthless item had an ironic twist. In the vast majority of newspapers, his obituary was not printed until April Fool's Day.

Related Topics: HISTORY
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