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.
But while variety is undeniably important to selling the product, Hirsch believes something deeper and more existential explains Chia’s enduring popularity. People, he said, “really enjoy the actual planting of the Chia [seeds] because it takes a little bit of a green thumb. You have to spread them and soak them and there’s a calming effect. [Let’s say I] had a tough day at work. I want to relax and I want to enjoy the Chia Pet and watch it actually grow. We have customers who don’t do any type of planting—yet this is something they’ll do.”
It’s something they’ll get to do more of, too. A few months ago, Joseph Enterprises was bought out by the National Entertainment Collectibles Association, which plans to license Chia Pet to apparel companies and even create an animated TV series. “Everybody wants the gift you can talk to someone else about,” said NECA president Joel Weinshanker. “Talk to your family and say, ‘I just bought a Chia Pet,’ and you’ll never have to tell them what it’s about. And everyone has a story about it.”
While Chia will continue to evolve and grow, one important thing won’t change: Those holiday-time TV spots will stay on the air and, Hirsch promises, “we’re not losing that jingle!”
Joseph Pedott and Chia Guy
Joseph Pedott first heard about a product called Chia Guy in 1977 while scouting prospects at the International Home + Housewares Show at Chicago’s McCormick Place (above).
Under Pedott’s leadership, Chia Guy became Chia Pet, starting with a ram (left) that was followed by a turtle, a frog, an elephant and so on. More recently, Joseph Enterprises branched into famous people, including Chia Obama (right) and Chia Bob Ross (center), the latter of which was 2017’s top-selling product of the lineup.
While Chia Guy had been in stores since 1973, most Americans didn’t find out about Chia Pet until the brand took to the airwaves in 1982 with holiday commercials. The spots were memorable in part for their low-budget feel—but mainly, it was that jingle. The inspiration for “Ch-ch-ch-chia!” was a night out at a Chicago bar, where one of Pedott’s colleagues (no doubt deep in his cups) stuttered the word Chia as a joke. “Hey, that is catchy,” Pedott said. “Let’s incorporate it.” He did, and the jingle runs in Chia Pet commercials to this day.