What do Pet Rocks and handbags made from frog and anaconda skin have in common?

Would you pay $17.23 for a smooth gray-colored stone that could fit in your hand, something you could find at almost any municipal park for free? That’s the equivalent value in today’s money of what people paid for Pet Rocks in 1975. Of course, it came with a 32 page manual full of puns and jokes about the rock.

Around the Christmas season in 1975, the Pet Rock first became a media sensation, covered in newspapers and TV news shows all over the country, and then a marketing fad as 1.5 million people plunked down $3.95 (plus tax, I assume) to buy one—for what purpose remains a mystery. Gag gifts? Funny party favors? Conversation starters? Because neighbors bought one for their grandchild? Unlike their later incarnation in virtual pets, which needed to be “fed” and “cleaned” on a regular basis, the Pet Rock did nothing and demanded no interaction. It just sat there, looking smooth.

Pet Rocks are in the news again—briefly—because their creator, a formerly ne’er-do-well advertising writer named Gary Dahl, has died.

The Pet Rock came out during a time of abundance when we had an historically large middle class and the smallest gap between the wealthy and the poor in terms of wealth and income in American history.  In 1975, someone making the federal minimum wage of $2.10 would have to work 1.88 hours to buy one, net of all taxes. The Pet Rock still sells today, but inflation has driven the cost for one up to $19.95, which means that net of taxes, it takes someone earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 about 2.75 hours to pay for one. Interestingly enough, someone earning the median household income in both 1975 and today would both work about 47.5 minutes to pay for a Pet Rock, again net of taxes. (The median is the point at which half the population is higher and half lower.)

If someone ran me through a word association test and mentioned the Pet Rock, the words that might come to mind are useless, frivolous, wasteful, stupid. It represents the frothy extreme of American consumerism—something you can find anywhere for free and yet you buy it. The Pet Rock takes to an absurd extreme the branding strategy by which you slap a catchy or famous name onto a cheap product and jack up the price. The messages behind the name supposedly imbue the product with greater worth—at least to unsavvy consumers, a category that seems to include many of us. In the case of the Pet Rock, the entire value is in the brand name, except for those who use their Pet Rocks for door stops or to keep their papers from flying around when the window is opened.

Coincidentally, the same day the news media reported the death of Mr. Pet Rock, it also told us that Carlos Falchi, a designer of exotic handbags, also met his demise. Falchi first made his name in the 1970’s and 1980’s selling exotic handbags patched together from the bits of skins of wild animals—the list of his raw material in the New York Times obituary includes pieces of alligators, anacondas, anteaters, buffalo, caiman, crocodiles and frogs, among others. Falchi handbags sell for thousands of dollars at upscale department stores, but you can get cheaper versions from $20 to $300 on the Home Shopping Network or at Target.

The question of how a $30 bag differs from the $5,000 bag involves a lot of variables, including materials. One Amazon seller is currently offering a bag for $16.95 made of nylon and faux snakeskin; another has one of the same material for $89.99. Meanwhile, Nieman Marcus is selling a bag made of python and leather for $1,155.  Most women and many men think they need handbags, and Falchi has a version for everyone, no matter how much money they earn. In fact, once you buy into the ideology of branding, buying a Falchi for around $20 is an enormous value, because you’re toting what the rich folk tote.

The brand-name fashion item thus becomes a social leveler of a peculiar sorts—it doesn’t level economic or social differences, just brand buying patterns. Mick Jagger, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol carried Falchi bags and so can the working Jane or Joe watching the Shopping Network. Celebrity worship, which usually involves a preoccupation with what a celebrity buys and uses,  serves as a means to lessen the perceived difference between rich and poor, thus helping to preserve social order.

But whatever price one pays for a Falchi, it costs more than it would without the fame of the Falchi name, without the back story of his creating custom hand-sewn bags for cool people. I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m extremely confident that the brand value of the Falchi name and myth adds much more to the cost of the expensive bags than the entire price of the Pet Rock.  I’m also confident that the cost to make the cheap bags is about the same as the cost to find and package the Pet Rock, and that both represent a small fraction of the sales price.

Thus Gary Dahl and the Carlos Falchi ( at least the one who expanded beyond making bags by himself for a handful of customers) were running the same exact scam, but on different audiences. Dahl went for the mass market and Falchi went for the wealthy, but both used the name to jack up the price beyond the value of the materials and labor needed to assemble the product. One could argue that the added value consisted of creativity, in the case of Dahl, his humor, and in the case of Falchi, his designs and selection of materials. But by the time the products rolled out in department stores, all this value had been reduced to the exhortation of a name: buy the smooth gray stone rock because of the name; buy the bag because of the name.


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