Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Dr Pepper's Wild Guns N' Roses Publicity Stunt to Give Everyone in America a Free Soda

rbanbuzz/iStock via Getty Images
rbanbuzz/iStock via Getty Images

At the start of 2008, few people could have predicted a film titled Kung Fu Panda would become the year’s third-highest grossing movie (The Dark Knight was number one); that an Iraqi journalist would throw his shoes at President George Bush (he ducked); or that someone would assemble a world-record setting rubber band ball (it weighed in at 9032 pounds). Nor could they have predicted that lawyers for musician Axl Rose would write an open and sternly worded letter to Dr Pepper, chastising the soft drink company for a public relations campaign the attorneys dubbed a “complete fiasco” and charging them with “reckless indifference or complete stupidity.”

The ire directed toward Dr Pepper, though bizarre, was not without cause. It was the result of a spectacular misstep in marketing—one that started as a joke and quickly became a costly venture for the popular carbonated beverage. In March 2008, Dr Pepper brazenly promised a free soda for every single person in the United States if Axl Rose and his reconfigured band, Guns N’ Roses, finally released their long-awaited Chinese Democracy album by the end of the year.

It seemed like a safe bet. Rose had been working on the record for 14 years. A release was unlikely given Rose’s infamous perfectionism and fractured relationships with his bandmates. In making the claim, Dr Pepper was awash in free publicity.

It doesn’t seem like anyone in the company gave serious consideration to what would happen if Rose decided to end the delay and put the album out. In November, that’s exactly what he did. Suddenly, millions of people wanted what they had been promised: a free Dr Pepper.

 

There was nothing in the history of either Dr Pepper or Guns N’ Roses to suggest their storied histories would ever overlap. The drink was the brainchild of Waco, Texas, pharmacist Charles Alderton, who formulated a 23-ingredient fountain beverage in 1885 and saw its popularity soar thanks to its presence at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He dubbed it Dr Pepper, though no one really knows why; one persistent rumor is that it was named after the father of a girl Alderton was in love with, but the origin of the name remains open to apocryphal speculation.

Dr Pepper was initially marketed as a health drink, free of the caffeine or cocaine that was present in similar concoctions. Some people used to drink it hot. It was a popular flavor and largely successful, even though it mostly existed in the shadow of the big two soft drink manufacturers, Coke and Pepsi.

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses is seen performing on stage
Scott Gries, Image Direct/Getty Images

In 1987, right around the time Dr Pepper was preparing to merge with Seven-Up to create a new soft drink conglomerate, a Los Angeles-based band named Guns N’ Roses released their first studio album, Appetite for Destruction. The band had been formed by William Bruce Rose, an Indiana native who came out to the West Coast to pursue a music career and took the stage name of Axl Rose (an anagram for oral sex). With childhood friend Izzy Stradlin, guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler, the Rose-led band went on to superstardom, holding the record for the biggest-selling debut album of all time, with 30 million copies sold.

The band followed up that success with a dual-disc album, Use Your Illusion I and II, in 1991. Soon, a variety of problems began to plague the group. Stradlin left. Adler struggled with addiction. Rose was alleged to have taken a hardline stance in the creative process, alienating Slash, who left in 1996. Other members came and went.

Through it all, Rose was preoccupied with Chinese Democracy, an ambitious and experimental record that he worked on with no particular sense of urgency. The band’s label, Geffen Records, sent a line of executives to try and persuade Rose to finish the album. Deadlines came and went. Rumors of the album being all but finished were confirmed when Rose let Rolling Stone writer David Wild listen to nine tracks in 1999. The year came and went, but no record was forthcoming.

Rose’s inability or unwillingness to complete Chinese Democracy became something of a running joke in the music industry, with Rose becoming an increasingly elusive figure. He performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002, leading to speculation the album was about to be released. It wasn’t. Geffen released a greatest hits compilation in 2004, leading to the same talk, but that record wasn’t even Rose’s idea: It was Geffen's, as they were looking to recoup the exorbitant costs of the delayed album. By 2005, it was estimated Rose had spent $13 million of the label’s money in production costs. Geffen finally cut him off and insisted he pay for any further studio time himself.

 

That was the state of the band when Dr Pepper marketing director Jaxie Alt proposed a bold strategy. It’s not known whether Alt was a Guns N’ Roses fan or simply someone who thought it would be fun to reference the album’s notorious reputation. Either way, Alt and Dr Pepper announced in March 2008 that if Chinese Democracy came out before the end of the year, they would buy everyone in America a free bottle of Dr Pepper.

A can of Dr Pepper sits next to a glass
Andreas Ivarsson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In a release, Alt wrote:

"It took a little patience to perfect Dr Pepper’s special mix of 23 ingredients, which our fans have come to know and love. So we completely understand and empathize with Axl’s quest for perfection—for something more than the average album. We know once it’s released, people will refer to it as 'Dr Pepper for the ears' because it will be such a refreshing blend of rich, bold sounds—an instant classic."

To Dr Pepper, it must have seemed like betting on a coin toss. But instead of opting for heads or tails, they were betting on the coin landing on its edge—probably the same odds of Rose managing to let go of Chinese Democracy after 14 years of work. (The company also mentioned the offer was good for everyone but Slash and Buckethead, presumably owing to their respective departures from the band.)

Rose, however, took the promotion in good humor, releasing a statement clarifying that he and his management had no official deal with the drink but were still “very happy” to have Dr Pepper’s support.

For a time, it seemed as though Dr Pepper’s plan to stir up publicity worked. The story was picked up across several mainstream media outlets as well as Rolling Stone and Billboard. It was a lofty pledge, but few people believed Dr Pepper would ever have to worry about fulfilling their promise.

It’s hard to know when Dr Pepper executives began to grow concerned. It might have been in August 2008, when a blogger named Kevin Cogill was arrested by the FBI for streaming nine tracks from Chinese Democracy on his website, a violation of federal anti-piracy laws. It’s not that it counted as an official release, but Cogill’s source (he didn’t reveal who) must have had their hands on something that was in some stage of preparation for distribution. It’s also possible Rose finally felt the state of music piracy was such that the full album would be leaked without his consent eventually and that he might as well do it himself. Whatever the case, in October, Geffen announced that Chinese Democracy was coming out on November 23.

Axl Rose and DJ Ashba of Guns 'N Roses are seen performing on stage
Adriano Machado, LatinContent/Getty Images

After the requisite fan excitement, people remembered Dr Pepper’s offer and began soliciting the company for comment. Tony Jacobs, the brand’s vice president of marketing, made an announcement: “We never thought this day would come,” he said.

In print, it was hard to know whether Jacobs was excited, worried, or some combination of the two.

 

The logistics of offering a free Dr Pepper to every single person in America was daunting. The U.S. population at the time was 305 million. Clearly, this could not involve giving an unsolicited 20-ounce Dr Pepper to people preemptively. If people wanted a free Dr Pepper, they would have to make their request known.

In a second press release, Dr Pepper explained the details of the offer. People could visit the official Dr Pepper website on November 23, the day of the album’s release as a Best Buy store exclusive, and share their name and address. Within four to six weeks, they would be mailed a coupon good for one 20-ounce bottle of the drink, redeemable at any establishment where Dr Pepper was sold.

Dr Pepper was making good on its offer. But fans felt the method left a lot to be desired. The site would accept registrations for the coupon for just 24 hours. Immediately, people had problems with the page failing to load, crashing, or refusing to save their information. A phone line that had been set up to take requests for the voucher was also tied up. Dr Pepper could not handle the volume of people looking for their free bottle of soda. November 23 was a Sunday, and the company extended the deadline through Monday in an effort to accommodate everyone.

A crumpled-up can of Dr Pepper is pictured
iStock.com/NoDerog

As complaints mounted, Rose’s attorneys took action. In a letter directed at Dr Pepper executives, they lambasted the company for the ill-conceived promotion and alleged it capitalized on the popularity of Guns N’ Roses while simultaneously harming the reputation of the band. They declared the whole idea a “unmitigated disaster which defrauded consumers” and demanded they run apology ads in major newspapers. The stunt, they argued, harmed the release of Chinese Democracy.

Laurie Soriano, an attorney for Rose, said that Rose’s camp had tried to work with Dr Pepper before the album’s release so demand could be met. But, she said, Dr Pepper didn’t want to collaborate. Soriano also told CNN that fans erroneously believed Rose was involved and were holding him partially responsible for the failure. The letter mentioned that the company had never sought out any official tie-in to the record or endorsement from Rose.

It’s not known how many coupons were ultimately redeemed, though site issues, lack of interest in Dr Pepper, or people simply failing to use them probably contributed to a number significantly less than 305 million. Dr Pepper’s brand seemed no worse for the wear, and Chinese Democracy sold a respectable 549,000 copies in its first 12 weeks of release. Despite the claims by Rose's lawyers, it’s unlikely people declined to buy the album out of protest over a soft drink promotion.

Dr Pepper remains a successful brand as part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Guns N’ Roses reunited in 2016 with original band members Rose, Slash, and McKagan with plans to release a new album, Rose’s first since Chinese Democracy. So far, Dr Pepper has not announced what their plans are, if any, should it ever materialize.

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