The man behind the Chia Pet and The Clapper--and their memorable ads
Joseph Pedott's products are core to the pop-culture canon
Geico recently did an '80s-style infomercial, and Amazon launched a QVC-style shopping livestream. The decade's advertising, it seems, is having a moment. What better time, then, to talk to the master of the genre, Joseph Pedott?
The marketer's most famous products pretty much defined the decade: the Chia Pet ("ch-ch-ch-Chia") and The Clapper ("Clap on, clap off"). His commercials, which he created via his eponymous ad agency, are core to the pop-culture canon—and the products still have cultural cachet. Lady Gaga dressed her bulldogs as Chia Pets for Halloween last year. Meanwhile, The Clapper resurfaced in memes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauding—sarcastically, some said—President Trump's State of the Union Address.
We caught up with Pedott, 86, in San Francisco as he prepared to move to a new office and was sorting through memorabilia, including an oil painting of the time he met President Obama and gave him a Chia Obama. (Michelle Obama gave one to Ellen DeGeneres.)
A year ago, Pedott sold his agency and Joseph Enterprises, the company that sold his products, to collectibles maker NECA, but he still consults for the new owners. This interview has been condensed and edited.
An article in Vice called The Clapper a precursor to the modern smart home movement. Would we have Amazon Alexa today if not for The Clapper?
I can't tell you that, but it did start a lot of things.
Do you have any smart home devices?
I have an Alexa.
How many Clappers do you have at home?
None. I used to. But I was going crazy. I mean everybody comes in and says, "Where's The Clapper?" There's an interesting story behind the naming of it. I had invited six couples over for dinner. [Pedott had just bought the product, then called The Great American Turn On, and had engineers improve it.] I said, "The dinner isn't free—I need a name for the product." But I already had a name in mind so I said, "What about The Clapper?" They said, "No." I said, "Why?" And someone said, "Well, 'the clap.'" I told them they had a dirty mind.
I still remember your commercials verbatim for The Clapper and Chia Pet. What's the secret to a memorable ad?
Both were clever. And we just stayed with it. "Ch-ch-ch Chia." Repetition works. And you've got to give a reason to the consumer, a reason why to buy it. It fills a need that something else might not be able to.
What need does the Chia Pet fill?
For kids, it's something growing. It's green. In the wintertime, it's still going to grow. It's unique.
If you had a startup today, how would you market it?
I would take it and test market it in three markets and see what happens. If I saw potential, I would then correct my mistakes and redo it again. Once I knew it was successful, I'd put everything I had behind it.
[Pedott's phone rings in the background.] What kind of phone was that?
An iPhone. I think this is the 8. All the old phones I had, I just threw them away yesterday.
Have you followed this Marie Kondo trend? She's a woman who teaches people to declutter their stuff.
No. Ugh, you have no idea how much I've thrown out. I've thrown out 65 years of history and about 2,000 photographs. Yesterday, I spent all day sorting out the ones I saved and mailing them to people. I just gave away my typewriter to the University of Illinois [Pedott's alma mater, and a place where he's funding scholarships]. They're putting it in their museum.
Is that the one you wrote all your commercials on?
Yeah. I figure I wrote about a minimum of 2,000 commercials [for the various products]. Early on the commercials were live. On a weekend, I might do half a dozen of them or more.
Some of your papers and correspondence are in The Smithsonian. How did that come about?
They called me out of the blue. I'm still pinching myself. The guy came out and went through my basement. We packed up five crates. They interviewed me, too.
Today your focus is on philanthropy?
Correct. What I do with my money is, I set up four charitable foundations, one in San Francisco, three in Chicago, that do nothing but help underprivileged kids who have the aptitude and desire to get into college.
I set up a foundation for SGA Youth and Family Services in Chicago that should support at least five people or more on their staff, forever. They were called Scholarship and Guidance then, and they helped me out when I was a kid. I was on my own at 16. I had a very aggressive father. Physical. I left home. I was living in a YMCA for three years and eating off a hot plate. So I know what it is. Now I'm repaying a debt.