After four decades of blockbuster sales, you can’t dismiss the grow-it-yourself sprout kits as a fad. “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia!” is arguably the most successful TV commercial jingle of all time. The product, a terracotta planter featuring many different styles – amongst them Star Wars, Bob Ross, and the Golden Girls – has become an American icon and was even included in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
For those of us who were around in the early 1980s, the phrase immediately conjures up images of years past and the hours we spent watching our own Chia Pets grow right before our eyes – be it the ram, the bull or a Chia Guy head. The product taught kids about nature and growing and it served as a kitchen decoration and was a slam-dunk for anyone in need of a gag gift.
Amazingly, the Chia Pet has withstood the test of time, and more than 15 million of the terracotta planters have been sold over the past four decades. It also appeared in many movies, TV shows and blogs.
Joseph Pedott, now in his 80s and a San Francisco resident and native Chicagoan, is the man behind the Chia Pet. He was the founder of Joseph Enterprises, a company that has not only marketed the Chia Pet, but also The Clapper—another iconic product that is memorialized at the Smithsonian.
THE EARLY DAYS
A graduate of the University of Illinois, Pedott moved to San Francisco in the late ’60s to launch an advertising agency. He was in search of a product to market and on a trip back home to Chicago, bumped into a man who was the head of sales for a popular drug store chain.
“I asked him what was his most popular product and he told me the Chia Pet,” remembers Pedott. “I had no idea what that was.” Within a few weeks, Pedott was on the phone to the Canadian company selling the product. The business owner said that although the Chia Pet was popular, it was losing them $1 on every sale. Something didn’t seem right to Pedott. He promptly purchased the rights to the product and started investigating the problem.
On a trip down to Mexico to visit the product producers (at the time the Chia Pet was made in the homes of Mexican workers; today it is manufactured in China) and found the middleman was taking more than his share—causing the Canadian company to lose money. Pedott fired the middleman and started working with the Chia Pet makers directly.
Pedott wanted to advertise the Chia Pet on TV but wasn’t sure how—until one day while sitting at a bar back in Chicago.
“I was out drinking one night and a friend jokingly stuttered, ‘Ch-ch-ch-chia,’” says Pedott. “I grabbed his arm and said, ‘Hey, that is catchy. Let’s incorporate it.’”
And so the iconic jingle was born. From the moment the first commercial aired, Walgreens, one of Pedott’s main clients, couldn’t keep the product on the shelves.
Looking back on his career, Pedott says he took a lot of risks. He’d release various-shaped Chia Pets, some which didn’t work out. But when he did find a style that seemed popular, he’d put all of his effort and money behind it.
“It was a risky proposition, but you never know what is possible if you don’t cross the street,” he says.
His risks started even before he hit the big time. In the early days of the Chia Pet, he’d ship the product to stores at his own expense and then only charge for products sold—a process that could have cost him a lot of money had it not worked.
“I did it because I liked the product and I believed in myself,” he says. “I think those two things were key.”
Today, Pedott isn’t planning to retire anytime soon.
“I love what I do,” he says, adding a few words of wisdom at the end of the interview. “Listen, learn, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try.”
Chia Pet – For 26 years, marketing whiz Joe Pedott’s green-pelted figures have been holiday-season hits – by Owen Edwards, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2007
86-year-old Joe Pedott, promoter of the Chia Pet, was here for Commencement – by Allison Vance, University of Illinois, May 2018
Joe Pedott Pays it Forward – by The Chicago Community Trust, May 2017
The man behind products like Chia Heads and the Clapper talks about his Chicago roots – by Roe Conn Show, WGN Radio interview, October 2016