Because many a potential pet owner, it seems, has no interest in early morning walks, cage cleaning, litter boxes or veterinary bills, the world's inventors and entrepreneurs constantly conjure creatures that ask next to nothing of their masters. Robot dogs, for example, need only a change of batteries. The pocket-size Tamagotchi, a handheld, egg-shaped computerized device marketed as a digital pet, requires daily attention, but its vital signs are strictly virtual; if it dies, one can boot up another. The pet rock may have been the most trouble-free of companions, but a goldfish was capable of more affection.
Of all the undemanding critters, perhaps none is as satisfying as the Chia Pet, the clay figure that when coated with the seeds of a Mexican herb (chia, a kind of sage) and filled with water, sprouts a lush coat of green fur in a couple of weeks. No doubt there are people whose childhoods were not warmed by the sight of a flourishing Chia Pet. Those countless thousands of us who were luckier can feel only sympathy for the uninitiated. For more than 25 years, the Chia has been a Christmas staple, offering amusement, amazement and exposure to Agriculture 101.
Chia Pets have been good to hundreds of thousands of kids for decades. But Chia Pets have been even better to Joe Pedott, who made a tidy fortune as he turned them into a household object. From his apartment at the top of San Francisco's Lombard Street, looking out on a view that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, Pedott describes the Chia as a "really lucky accident."
Pedott, 75, is what can only be characterized as a marketing whiz. In the mid-1950s, after moving from Chicago, where he grew up, to San Francisco, the 25-year-old Pedott opened his own advertising firm. He continued to return regularly to his hometown, however. In 1977, on the lookout for potential clients, he attended the annual housewares show in the Windy City. There he asked a buyer from a large West Coast drugstore chain about his big holiday sellers. "He told me that something called the Chia Pet always sold out," Pedott recalls. "So I went over to talk with a man named Walter Houston, who was importing the little figures from Mexico." Houston, however, wasn't turning much profit on the enterprise.
Pedott, believing he could do better with the product, negotiated to buy the rights from Houston.
Pedott visited the town in Mexico where the pets were made (they're now produced in China, like just about everything else). Once he was on the scene, he discovered that the middleman between the company and the factory was cheating on prices. (Hence his predecessor Houston's inability to make much money.)
Pedott began manufacturing, importing and advertising the Chia. Back in San Francisco, at an agency brainstorming session, someone pretended to stutter the name; Pedott knew a good thing when he heard it, and "Ch-ch-ch-Chia" entered the Valhalla of memorable advertising catchphrases. (His companies also produce and advertise another staple of the holiday marketing season, the Clapper, a device for turning lights, televisions and radios on and off.)
Today, the range of Chias has expanded, with licensed characters including Elmer Fudd, Shrek and Homer Simpson growing green manes. "The new Chias are fun," Pedott says, "but the original bull and ram are still the most popular." How popular? According to Pedott, some 500,000 Chias are sold each year during the holiday season.
In 2003, John Fleckner, chief archivist at the National Museum of American History, asked Pedott to donate his company's papers, television advertising tapes and a selection of Chia Pets to the archive center. "Joe told me to take whatever we want," Fleckner recalls.
The ch-ch-ch-Chia is so much a part of American consumer lore that it was ch-ch-ch-chosen to be included in a New York Times time capsule, to be opened in the year 3000, along with a Purple Heart medal, a can of Spam and a Betty Crocker cookbook.
Over a cup of excellent coffee, served in a Chia Pet cup, I ask Pedott if he is surprised by the lasting success of his pet pals. Gazing out at the expansive, expensive view, he smiles. "Absolutely."
Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.