Joseph Pedott, an entrepreneurial advertising executive who turned the Chia Pet and Clapper light switch into retail sensations with jingles — “Ch-ch-ch-Chia”; “Clap on, clap off!” — that have echoed in ears for generations, died June 22 at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 91.
Amid a sickly and harrowing childhood — he spent years in a convalescent home and later fled an abusive father — Mr. Pedott cultivated an innate streak of creativity that, in time, found an ideal outlet in advertising and the world of novelties.
The Chicago native settled in San Francisco and founded an advertising agency in 1958. In 1977, business took him back to his hometown, where an encounter at a housewares convention piqued his interest.
A buyer for a drugstore chain mentioned that his hottest holiday seller was a ceramic figurine then imported from Mexico. Soaked in water, and covered with a paste of fast-germinating Salvia hispanica or Chia seeds, it would sprout a green coat that looked something like hair. The inventor, Walter Houston, was losing money on the product and agreed to sell it to Mr. Pedott for $25,000.
Mr. Pedott traveled to Mexico, cut out a thieving middleman, and relaunched the product now known as the Chia Pet through a manufacturing company, Joseph Enterprises. The first widely distributed animal incarnation of Chia products, introduced in 1982, was a ram.
Mr. Pedott did not create but was credited with recognizing the brilliance of the jingle proposed to him. “A friend jokingly stuttered ‘ch-ch-ch-Chia,’” Mr. Pedott told an interviewer years later. “I grabbed his arm and said, ‘Hey, that is catchy. Let’s incorporate it.’”
The “Ch-ch-ch-Chia” tune became familiar to millions of TV watchers and helped make the Chia Pet one of the most popular items in the history of novelty sales. More animal Chia creations followed — turtles, kittens, puppies and dinosaurs.
Other Chia figurines included George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Elmer Fudd and Bart Simpson. In recent years, Mr. Pedott sold Chia statuettes in the likenesses of contemporary presidents and presidential candidates.
He was forced to pull the Barack Obama Chia from some shelves in 2009 amid complaints that its green Afro was racist.
Mr. Pedott, a Republican who enthusiastically supported Obama, insisted that he intended the product as an homage. He was gratified, he said, when he had the opportunity to personally present the commander in chief with his Chia namesake; Obama, by Mr. Pedott’s account, approved.
Mr. Pedott’s company marketed Chia Pets around the world. Chia sales in the United States have topped 25 million, the publication Adweek reported.
Through his advertising and manufacturing companies, Mr. Pedott was also largely responsible for popularizing the Clapper, a gadget that, when connected to a lamp or appliance at the electrical outlet, allows a user to turn the appliance on or off with a forceful clap. It was first sold in 1985.
Mr. Pedott said that when he bought the product, it was called the Great American Turn On but was better at blowing televisions out than turning them on. He improved the design before launching the Clapper, with the memorable “Clap on, clap off” jingle, in commercials that showcase its utility for people too weary to get up to turn on or off a light.
Joseph Pedott was born in Chicago on April 14, 1932. He contracted rheumatic fever at age 11, leading to his stay in the convalescent home. One of the employees at the facility was Rod Serling, later the creator of the TV anthology series “The Twilight Zone.” They remained friends for years.
Mr. Pedott’s mother, a homemaker, died when Mr. Pedott was 13. His father, a physician who worked for v, was “aggressive” and “physical,” Mr. Pedott told the publication Ad Age. He found refuge at the YMCA, “eating off a hot plate,” and at other points lived in a foster facility and with the family of a friend.
He was enduringly grateful to a social services organization for youths in Chicago, which provided him a scholarship and stipend during some of his more difficult times. He made that organization, among others, the recipient of his substantial philanthropy over the years.
He credited the organization with helping him find his way to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he studied media and journalism and received a bachelor’s degree in 1955.
Mr. Pedott started an agency with a fellow student while still in college and was invited by a professor, he told an alumni publication, to teach advertising 101 before he had graduated.
He worked for several years at an advertising agency in Chicago before moving to San Francisco. By his count, he wrote “a minimum of 2,000 commercials” beginning in the era of black-and-white live TV.
In 2018, Mr. Pedott sold his companies to the National Entertainment Collectibles Association. Both the Chia Pet and the Clapper are included in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
Mr. Pedott was never married. His only immediate survivor is his partner of nearly three decades, Carol Katz of San Francisco.
During his decades in business, Mr. Pedott marketed an array of products with one name catchier than the next. There were, among others, the Garden Weasel, a handy garden tool, and the ‘Ove’ Glove oven mitt.
The Clapper might not have been sold under its now-well-known moniker had Mr. Pedott not overruled some friends who objected to it.
“I had invited six couples over for dinner. 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?’” Mr. Pedott recalled.
“They said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And someone said, ‘Well, the clap.’ I told them they had a dirty mind.”