The Pet Rock bubble: the weird products that came after the Pet Rock took over the world

Pet Rock Money

What happens when a weird product becomes a viral phenomenon? In 1975, the Pet Rock did just that, selling a purported 1.5 million rocks. A hit like that doesn’t go unnoticed.

Novelty products and memes are part of every decade, but the late 70s and early 80s were a boom period for Pet Rock knockoffs. The decade after Gary Dahl’s Pet Rock debuted, imitators popped up around the country and across the world. It inspired countless people seeking to do what Dahl did: invent a gimmick, sell it well, and make a fortune in the process. Hundreds of people asked themselves the same question: how do you make a hit as big as the Pet Rock?

If you’re Bill Ricktor, you sell potatoes.

The Pet Rock inspires the box of Awesome Potatoes

Idaho PotatoesIn May of 1982, it had already been seven years since the Pet Rock debuted, but Bill Ricktor was still inspired.

The Ketchum, Idaho real estate salesman wanted to do something cute with his state’s most famous export, so he created the Awesome Box of Potatoes. The box sold for $9.95 and included four hand-picked potatoes, cradled lovingly in some wood chips, and contained in a nice wooden box. Like the Pet Rock, it included some catchy copy, like facts about potatoes and advice for care (you should wash it in the bathtub if your sink’s too small).

“It’s sort of like a Pet Rock,” Ricktor said, “except that you can eat it.”

He enlisted a book publicist to help and made plans to get 6,000 giant tubers to fuel expected demand.

His product was just one of many inspired by the Pet Rock’s stardom.

Other Pet Rock imitators try to rock the market

In the late 70s, the Pet Rock became an inspiration at best and, at worst, a buzzword to try to make lame projects take off.

Some took the rock inspiration very close to heart. The American Pet Rock was quickly imitated in Canada because the creators hadn’t secured the rights, but there were also more indirect imitators. An Ohio company named ProArts capitalized on a Superman license by selling Kryptonite rocks that glowed in the dark. As early as 1979, an enterprising Canadian sold canned dirt from Alberta, Canada. Called Kan’D Land, he believed the product would have lasting value because “people go for the idea of owning a piece of real estate,” which was more practical than the man who sold Martian soil. Another Canadian entrepreneur used the Pet Rock to sell the public on whiskey stones for their drinks.

More creative businesspeople still hoped for a viral hit with the Pet Rock magic. Bert Monroe bottled New York tap water and sold it for $2.50 in 1979, claiming the Pet Rock as inspiration, and another pastoral entrepreneur leased Vermont maple trees’ syrup, both embracing and trying to escape what he called “the Pet Rock stigma.” An overstuffed bear—the Pot Belly Bear—angled to be the hot new toy while, in publishing, the No Frills books put genre books in low-tech packaging as a Pet Rock homage. Gag gifts even went high-tech with Datacon’s Missing Bits, which was a blank disk that was guaranteed to do nothing (sales were just as unimpressive).

Even the culture at large loved to get stoned (we had to include at least one Pet Rock-style pun). Racehorses were named Pet Rock and boats were christened the same (one yacht named Pet Rock almost sank). No one was immune to the craze, and that included the creators themselves.

The people behind the Pet Rock try for another hit

The people who invented the Pet Rock seemed like shoe-ins to replicate its success, and they definitely tried.

Copywriter Gary Dahl, who’s usually credited as the inventor of the Pet Rock, took repeated stabs at another viral hit. He released a personal Iranian oil well (quickly crashed by the Iranian hostage crisis), sand breeding kits, and red China dirt. The packager who put the Pet Rock together, George Coakley, also tried to find another hit novelty product. He released a metric watch, a toothbrush ring, canned air from Nebraska, and a potful of Earthworms. Before either man moved past the Pet Rock, the pair split because of a bitter dispute over their pet creation. It didn’t really matter, because neither man was able to replicate the rock’s success.

One outside entrepreneur recognized the darker lesson of the Pet Rock. Lucy Mackall, who invented a hit brand of decorative shoelaces for children, did manage to achieve Pet Rock-like megastardom. But it didn’t last, and it was even harder to replicate.

“A shoelace is like a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” she said. “It’s like a pet rock or a hula hoop. It was big. I didn’t realize how big it was until I tried to come up with something else that would be somewhat comparable. There was nothing.”

The Pet Rock’s influence lives on…in potatoes

The Pet Rock does live on in some ways. ThinkGeek sells a USB Pet Rock, and another company markets a version of the original (of course, for today’s consumers, the joke isn’t enough. There has to be a social mission to the modern Pet Rock). And beyond the Pet Rock, novelty products continue to have stratospheric trajectories.

Unfortunately, Bill Ricktor’s Awesome Potatoes weren’t the hit he hoped they’d be. A few months after he was first interviewed, the follow-up revealed what had happened—not much. Ricktor’s potatoes was selling a few hundred boxes a month, but it wasn’t a full time living.

That said, there’s a chance he was simply missed one key step. Recently, there was a Kickstarter that raised $55,492 in a month. The project? Not potatoes, but close.

Somebody wanted to make potato salad.

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