Joseph Pedott, 91, dies; Made Chia Pets an 'as Seen on TV' sensation
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Joseph Pedott, 91, dies; Made Chia Pets an 'as Seen on TV' sensation
A 2017 image by Jay Watson of Joseph Pedott with a variety of examples from the Chia Pet line, which he first encountered at trade expo in 1977. Pedott, whose decades of commercials for the zany plantlike figurines known as Chia Pets launched them into the pantheon of American consumer culture, died on June 22, 2023, in San Francisco. He was 91. (Jay Watson via The New York Times)

by Alex Traub

NEW YORK, NY.- Joseph Pedott, whose decades of commercials for the zany plantlike figurines known as Chia Pets launched them into the pantheon of American consumer culture, died on June 22 in San Francisco. He was 91.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said Sherry Ettleson, a family friend.

The origins of the Chia Pet’s popularity can be traced to March 1977, when Pedott (pronounced PEE-dot), an independent advertising executive, wandered around a Chicago home and housewares trade expo looking for new clients. He asked the head of sales at the Thrifty drugstore chain about his bestselling product.

“He said, ‘There’s this stupid item called the Chia Pet. I don’t know why anybody buys it,’” Pedott later recalled.

The sales executive faxed Pedott a picture of the stupid item in question. It was a terra cotta figurine manufactured in Oaxaca, Mexico, sold along with a chia seed spread. When watered for a week or two, the seeds sprouted hairlike grass.

However odd the Chia Pet might have seemed, Pedott, unlike the sales executive, did not judge consumers for liking it. He decided that Chia Pets were missing only one thing: good advertising.

He bought the rights from their importer, a man named Walter Houston; secured a better deal from the manufacturers in Mexico; and, by the early 1980s, had begun widely marketing his new product with a jingle that consisted of a breathy female voice exclaiming “ch-ch-ch-Chia.”

The campaign worked. In 2018, Pedott’s company, Joseph Enterprises, announced that Americans had bought about 25 million Chia Pets. Tens of millions more people who never owned a Chia Pet still gained a vivid sense of what they were — though not as objects in real life so much as figments of the half-real world of television.

The ads labeled Chia Pets “the pottery that grows.” Was that fantastical promotion for a gag gift or for home décor? The Chia Pet, somehow, became both, much like another infomercial bauble: Big Mouth Billy Bass, the wall hanging that is also a talking fish.

Chia Pet’s competitors over the years have included other inanimate objects marketed as pets — most notably Pet Rock, a ventilated box containing a rock on a bed of straw, and Tamagotchi, the hand-held digital pet. The first was a fad of the 1970s, the second a fad of the 1990s.

Maybe thanks to its pseudobotanical organicness, the Chia Pet retained a firmer hold on popular affection, as evinced by the surprisingly wide range of human activities for which it has become a metaphor.

The New York Times critic Roberta Smith described Jeff Koons’ 1992 sculpture “Puppy” as “a shaggy dog made entirely of flowers, and the biggest Chia Pet ever.” The Chia Pet became likened to a hairstyle, with the term being used to describe the coiffures of the 1990s New York Knicks power forward Charles Oakley; the renegade former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio; Ben Affleck in “Argo” (2012); and Bradley Cooper in “American Hustle” (2013). The uncontrollable growth of Chia Pet hair inspired Times columnist Maureen Dowd to write in 1998, the year President Bill Clinton was impeached, about “wacky independent counsels who grow like Chia Pets.”

Rock bands called themselves Chia Pet and, more surprisingly, novelists used it as a name for their characters.

As a barometer of fame, getting a Chia Pet modeled after you has become a distinction far rarer than getting your own bobblehead. Those so honored include Willie Nelson, Bob Ross, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It is an equally exclusive club for fictional characters, including Scooby Doo, Chewbacca, Bugs Bunny and Bart Simpson.

In a sign of ultimate triumph, Chia Pets grew more recognizable than chia seeds themselves. “First there were Chia Pets,” The New York Times wrote in 2012. “Now, chia is having a second life as a nutritional ‘it’ item.”

Pedott scored another notable success with the Clapper, which he began marketing in the mid-1980s. It enables household items to be turned on or off through clapping, predicting our current age of controlling your front door, refrigerator and thermostat with a cellphone.

Though the Clapper did not become a pop-culture phenomenon like the Chia Pet — or sell nearly as well — it did inspire the slogan “Clap on, clap off,” which joined the Chia Pet jingle as an unforgettable bit of late-20th-century televised ballyhoo.

In 2019, Ad Age asked Pedott for the secret to a memorable ad.

“We just stayed with it,” he said. “‘Ch-ch-ch-Chia.’ Repetition works.”

Joseph Pedott was born on April 14, 1932, in Chicago to Meyer Pedott, a doctor in the Army and the Veterans Administration, and Jean (Segal) Pedott, a homemaker. Joe’s mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage when he was 13. He and his father often fought, which led Joe to run away from home when he was 16 and move into a YMCA.

A Chicago nonprofit called Scholarship and Guidance helped with his living expenses, and he paid his own way through college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign by working as a switchboard operator and selling women’s shoes.

“You couldn’t get any poorer than me,” he told the university in a 2018 interview. “In those days, there weren’t scholarships or loans. My tuition was $64 a semester. I was getting paid 65 cents per hour.”

He and a classmate wrote and produced commercials for local companies in Chicago, and they opened their own ad agency after Pedott graduated with a degree in journalism in 1955. That partnership soon fell apart, and Pedott moved to San Francisco. He lived there for the rest of his life.

When, as an older man, he established a nonprofit with assets worth more than $9 million, he donated money to SGA Youth & Family Services, the new name of the Chicago nonprofit that had helped him when he was young, as well as to Jewish causes, particularly the Hillel student groups. He sold Joseph Enterprises in 2018 to National Entertainment Collectibles Association, a company known for licensing consumer goods.

Pedott never married. He is survived by his longtime partner, Carol Katz. He died in a hospital.

The Chia Pet has occasionally been described as an artifact of a now-chintzy cultural yesteryear. Writers for the Times have referred to “embarrassment that may overwhelm someone who stumbles across a Chia Pet in the attic” and have imagined the recent past of middle-class life as a time when “everyone was just zoning out in their beanbag chairs, watching ‘Love Boat’ and drinking Tang as their Chia pets grew.”

Yet the current corporate owners of Chia Pets describe the product as unexpectedly au courant, even prophetic. They manufacture Chia Pets representing the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. To learn who was going to win the 2012 and 2016 races, you could have simply studied Chia Pet sales.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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