One afternoon in March 1977, a man named Joseph Pedott was walking the floor of Chicago’s McCormick Place, surveying the millions of goods on offer at the annual International Home + Housewares Show. Pedott was a man on a mission. A few years earlier, the Chicago native moved to San Francisco and started his own advertising agency. But his need for clients had brought him back east to the trade expo.
The decision turned out to be a good one. Pedott struck up a conversation with a buyer for a drugstore chain who mentioned a quirky product that sold well during the holidays. It was a human head-shaped terracotta planter that, when filled with water and coated with a paste of Salvia hispanica seeds, would grow a patch of chia that resembled a head of hair. It was called the Chia Guy.
Pedott bought the rights and, after expanding into animals under the brand name of Chia Pet, would end up building his investment into one of the best-selling novelty items of all time. Today, Pedott’s company Joseph Enterprises estimates that it’s sold over 25 million Chia Pets in the U.S. alone. There is a Chia Pet in a time capsule buried in New York City. There is a Chia Pet in the Smithsonian Institution.
“We don’t want to call ourselves advertising wizards,” Joseph Enterprises vp Michael Hirsch said of the company’s success, “but we lucked into it.”
Well, it wasn’t all luck. While no rationale can wholly explain the appeal of these “lovably tacky botanical totems,” as they’ve been called, it did take some shrewd decisions to achieve the brand’s iconic status. Credit for dreaming up the original product goes to Walter Houston, who hired earthenware makers in Oaxaca, Mexico, to produce the planters in 1973. And while Pedott wasn’t an inventor, he was a gifted marketer; in 1982, he began airing TV spots for his first Chia Pet—a ram—along with the catchy “Ch-ch-ch-Chia!” jingle (see bottom photo caption).
After selling a menagerie of creatures (a turtle, a hippo, a frog and so on), Pedott’s company branched into licensed characters (Shrek, Tweety Bird, SpongeBob) and then into celebrities like Bob Ross. At any given time, Joseph Enterprises has between 16 and 20 different Chia Pets on offer.