As a kid, you likely honed your green thumb and your pet parenting skills by looking after a Chia Pet. The premise behind the novelty item was simple, yet bizarre: Cover a grooved, terracotta figurine with moist chia seeds; fill it with liquid; and watch it sprout green “hair” seemingly overnight. Find out how the knickknacks made their way from Mexico to your kitchen windowsill, how the annoying catchy "Ch-ch-ch-chia" jingle came to be, why one Chia Pet will survive to see the year 3000, and more.
1. A SAVVY AD EXECUTIVE TOOK A CHANCE ON THE CHIA PET.
It’s unclear who invented the Chia Pet, but we do know that its massive success can be attributed to a San Francisco ad exec named Joe Pedott. He purchased the rights to the terracotta figures in the 1970s, and today runs Joseph Enterprises, Inc., a gadget company that produces quirky products including the Chia Pet and The Clapper, the sound-activated electrical switch. (Remember the jingle? “Clap On! Clap Off!”)
According to Smithsonian magazine, Pedott visited an annual housewares show in Chicago in 1977. There, he asked a buyer for a West Coast drug store chain what his most popular items were during the holiday season. “He told me that something called the Chia Pet always sold out,” Pedott recalled. “So I went over to talk with a man named Walter Houston, who was importing the little figures from Mexico."
Houston’s company was losing money on the sales, and Pedott purchased the rights, convinced he could turn a profit. Sure enough, the ad exec eventually discovered that Houston had been swindled: Pedott traveled to Mexico, where workers made the terracotta figurines in their homes, and discovered that the middleman between them and Houston had been pocketing more than his fair share. He was fired, and Pedott established a direct working relationship with the Chia Pet sculptors. (Today, they’re made in China.) Though Joseph Enterprises, Inc. trademarked the “Chia Pet” brand name, it's not a patented invention, which is why you may encounter imitations of the leafy figurines sold in stores under a different name.
2. THE "CH-CH-CH-CHIA" THEME WAS BRAINSTORMED IN A BAR.
According to Pedott, the now-iconic “ch-ch-ch-Chia” song arose from an alcohol-fueled brainstorming session. “I was out drinking one night and a friend jokingly stuttered ‘ch-ch-ch-chia,'" the ad exec said in an American Express OPEN Forum interview. “I grabbed his arm and said, ‘Hey, that is catchy. Let’s incorporate it.’” (Other sources claim that the jingle arose from a much tamer—and sober-sounding—agency brainstorming meeting.)
3. THE FIRST CHIA PET WAS ACTUALLY A CHIA HUMAN.
The very first Chia pet ever sold wasn’t actually an animal—it was a human. “Chia Guy,” a terracotta sculpture of a man’s head, was created in 1977; it looked kind of like a mix between Homer Simpson and Woody from Toy Story (1995), with sprouts for hair. The product that put Chia Pets on the map, however, was a ram-shaped planter released in 1982. Later, the company introduced kittens, puppies, frogs, pigs, and other shapes.
In 2000, licensed “character” Chias like Elmer Fudd, the Tasmanian Devil, and Tweety Bird were added to the mix, followed by Chia Mr. T (the sprouts formed a Mohawk), Homer Simpson, and more. In 2008, the company began making Chia Pets of real life public figures, releasing "happy" and "determined" President Barack Obama figurines.
4. THE "CHIA POLL" REPORTEDLY PREDICTS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OUTCOMES.
Obama isn’t the only president who’s been given the Chia treatment: For the past two presidential elections, Joseph Enterprises has released Chia figurines of the Republican and Democrat nominees, and tracked the sales. They claim that their so-called “Chia Poll” has predicted the election’s outcome for two years running. During the 2016 election, Chia Trump reportedly outsold sales of the Chia Clinton by 77 percent to 23 percent, and in 2012, sales of Chia Obama and Chia Romney were very close to the Electoral College percentages.
5. THE NEW YORK TIMES INCLUDED A CHIA PET IN A TIME CAPSULE.
Chia Pets are such a hallmark of 20th century American culture that in the late 1990s, one was included in a time capsule assembled by The New York Times. In addition to the Chia Pet (which, presumably, was kept in its box), the welded, stainless steel container contains a can of SPAM, a box of Sudafed, a gold nose ring, a Beanie Baby, and a condom. The capsule is kept at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and is slated to be opened in the year 3000.
6. CHIA PETS ARE ONLY MARKETED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON ...
Ever wonder why the Chia Pet commercial only seems to play on TV right around Christmas? That’s because Joseph Enterprises typically only advertises its products during the holiday shopping season so they can market them as a “great gift” for loved ones. In fact, Michael Hirsch, vice president of Joseph Enterprises, told magazine Advertising Age that, in 2008, 90 percent of Chia Pet sales occurred during that period. "Because it's a demonstrable product at a relatively inexpensive price, running TV has been our savior every year," Hirsch said. "We like to say that the Chia Pets have to hibernate the rest of the year."
7. ... BUT PLENTY OF PEOPLE REPORTEDLY BUY THEM.
Chia Pets may seem like the relic of a bygone era, but Joseph Enterprises claims that plenty of people still dig the living sculptures. According to the company, they sell more than 500,000 Chia Pet units per year, and have done so for the past few decades. (Joseph Enterprises is a privately held company, and official sales data isn't made public, so there’s no way to confirm this for sure.)
8. CHIA PETS INSPIRE ART.
— Cosmic Lab (@CosmicLabTeam) March 1, 2016
Even if you don’t own a Chia Pet, one artist still wants you to consider dressing like one. Portland, Oregon-based product designer Elizabeth Esponnette’s "Wearables Collection” features garments made from unconventional materials: dresses crafted from hot glue, crystal cocktail gowns grown from alum salt, and a leafy, Chia Pet-inspired vest. Esponnette made a garment pattern from muslin fabric, laid it on wet foam, planted chia seeds into the fabric, and let them grow. Then, she sewed the leafy material into a vest.
“This garment represents a symbiotic relationship between it and its user: the user needing oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide for respiration and the chia needing carbon dioxide in exchange for oxygen for photosynthesis,” Esponnette explained in a statement.
9. CHIA PET SEEDS ARE EDIBLE (BUT YOU STILL SHOULDN'T EAT THEM).
Chia seeds aren’t just for growing—they’re also for eating. In recent years, health buffs have anointed the small, crunchy seeds as a new “super food,” as they’re packed with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, protein, and fiber. You can purchase foods containing chia seeds in grocery stores, or buy them separately at health food stores and cook with them. But if you own an old, boxed Chia Pet that’s collecting dust, don’t be tempted to chow down on its pre-packaged seeds. They’re not thoroughly cleaned—plus, unlike their store-packaged counterparts, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t OK'd them for eating.