People Will Buy Anything

Yesterday morning in church, I observed something that got me thinking. No, it wasn’t the sermon or a scripture reading, it was somebody’s shirt. As we were walking out of the building I saw a man wearing a beige polo shirt with an embroidered logo that read Rainforest Café – Las Vegas.

I thought to myself, what motivates someone to buy an overpriced shirt, at an overpriced theme restaurant, in perhaps the most overpriced city in America?

I’ve been to the Rainforest Café in different malls in a few American cities. It is a nice enough place, but it is really geared for kids. I have no memory of the food, but I do remember the large gift shop through which you must walk to get in, or out of the restaurant. I can understand why a child might want a rubber snake, a safari hat, or even a colorful t-shirt from such a place, but I am still baffled at what would cause an adult to drop something north of $50 on a “church worthy” garment in such a place.

Then I remembered the Pet Rock.

An advertising executive named Gary Dahl thought up the Pet Rock in 1975. While listening to his friends complain about their pets, he got the idea for the perfect pet… a rock. At first it was nothing but a joke, but he eventually took it seriously. He purchased ordinary gray stones from a builder’s supply store and sold them like live pets, in custom boxes, complete with straw and breathing holes. In just over six months Dahl sold 1.5 million Pet Rocks and became a millionaire.

I ran this whole story by some of my children this morning and they looked at me like I was crazy. Of course it was crazy… and brilliant all at the same time. There were 215 million people in the United States in 1975, which means that ¾ of 1% of Americans bought pet rocks in less than a year. If you’ve ever spent any time in marketing, you know that is an astonishing rate of penetration, and Dahl didn’t even have the Internet.

Albert Einstein once said:
If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

In the early 1980’s my parents decided to have a garage sale. My brother, sister, and I were all sent to probe the depths of our bedrooms in search of things that could be sold. One of the things I came out with was a folded map (remember those) of Rochester. It wasn’t even a legitimate map from Rand McNally or AAA, it was one of those free maps from a radio station that was covered in advertisements. My mom looked through my box of stuff and immediately removed the map saying, “nobody is going to pay for that.”  I disagreed, and as we were making the final preparations for the sale, I slipped the map onto one of the tables and placed a sticker on it for 50¢.

It was the very first thing that we sold. In the case of the map I probably just got lucky, but the larger point is unavoidable.

There is no foolproof way to determine what people will or won’t buy.

If there were, the hundreds of thousands of people who spend their careers in sales and marketing would be out of a job. Think about all the crazy stuff you see for sale on TV every day, the Ginsu Knife, the Snuggie, the George Foreman Grill, and let us not forget the Pocket Fisherman or Mr. Microphone.

Much like the Pet Rock, these are products that rocket into popularity, make a crap-load of money and then vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. Many products succeed using this formula, but an even larger number fail. Even the cheesy, easy way to sell is far from predictable.

The real gold is in developing something that will both capture the attention of society, but also adds value in a way that endures.

Back in the 1990s, when working in New York, I used to read the Wall Street Journal almost every day. One morning while flipping through the pages I came across a full-page ad for one of the large management-consulting firms. The page was mostly blank, but in the middle was an image of a napkin. On the napkin was scribbled the word Coffee, followed by “50¢” The “50¢” was crossed out and replaced with larger text that read “$2.50.” Then there was a little sketch of a circular logo that was intended to make you think of the Starbucks logo.


My recollection of the WSJ ad.

As someone holding a cup of Starbucks while reading the ad, I felt like a little bit of as ass, but the point was clear… crazy ideas, properly executed, can become something not so crazy.

The ad, though provocative and funny, is all distraction. Starbucks does not sell coffee any more than Gary Dahl was selling rocks. They are selling an experience, a feeling, a sense of community or belonging. In the case of Mr. Dahl, his was one of limited endurance. In the case of Starbucks, they have 23,187 stores in 64 countries, and annual revenue in the neighborhood of 15 billion… you do the math.

As you look ahead at your week, consider using the following logic filter:


Fad ideas might serve you for weeks or months, but enduring ideas of value can serve you for decades.

The next time you see a garage sale, stop the car and look for Pet Rocks, Pocket Fishermen and Ginsu Knives. If you’re really lucky, you just might find a Rainforest Café shirt in your size.

Enjoy the videos below… classic stuff.

Pocket Fisherman

Ginsu Knife

Mr. Microphone



Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.



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