Antenna TV, a channel that broadcasts mostly retro television shows, has announced that as of September 14 the new voice of their network will be Shadoe Stevens, actor, radio host, and all-around creative genius. So it seems like a good time to re-visit Stevens’ most legendary, if not best known, media work: a series of television ads for The Federated Group.
Founded 1970 in Los Angeles, Federated was a chain of stereo and TV stores that spread slowly at first throughout Southern California. Like many other short-lived electronics chains such as Pacific Stereo, Highland, Crazy Eddie, DOW, and (Nobody Beats) The Wiz, Federated rode the wave of VCR sales from the late 70s to the mid-80s.
When Federated sought out Stevens as their pitch man, he was already very experienced and respected as an announcer, voice-over artist, and radio deejay. With his iconic baritone voice and comedic style that could whip back and forth from deadpan to manic, Stevens had moved quickly from radio stations in North Dakota to the biggest Southern California radio broadcasters like KMET and KROQ. More than just a great vocal personality, he was a program director and writer who directed the formats of the stations.
By the 1980’s Stevens had developed a large listenership in Los Angeles, and according to his website (shadoe.com), he “was retained to devise an advertising strategy and branding campaign” for the Federated Group which had grown to be a 14 store chain. Stevens “created and played a character named Fred Rated in a series of commercials that were a mix of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python.” With his team, Stevens created over 1200 commercials during his four-year stint with the company.
But Stevens’ commercials were less SNL and more MTV – or at least where MTV would be within a few years. The commercials used low-budget videography techniques like the more cutting-edge work to be found on Night Flight shows such as New Wave Theater: multiple exposures, montages, intercuts of vintage film clips, shaky cams, wild angles, and most of all fast edits to keep the energy level high.
The products on display became the thinnest of excuses for Stevens’ brand of absurdist comedy. The Fred Rated character would be joined in time by Lil’ Fred, Frieda Rated, Frehdie Raedair, Orson Rated, and other seemingly endless permutations, creating a circus-like atmosphere. They parodied current movies, music, fashions, and politics, with a generous dose of tongue-in-cheek references to old-time vaudeville and hackneyed comedy shtick thrown in. The result was a kaleidoscope of 80s pop culture juggled together in a quick-cut video sequences, often parodying trends before most people were even aware of them. The commercials created an excitement about blank video tapes and sales on cable boxes that sometimes tipped into pandemonium.
Opinions varied as to the quality of the ad campaign. The LA Times referred to the spots as “self-indulgent, eccentric commercials.” One bit, which had Fred shouting about the latest sale while battling swarms of attacking rubber frogs, was characterized by Adweek magazine as “undeniably tasteless.”
But the negative reviews were drowned out by applause. The ads made such an impression that they became the subject of a two-page spread in Time magazine, unusual national attention for a regional ad campaign. Stevens himself would win awards in advertising including a Clio and the Big Apple Award. Most importantly, TV viewers enjoyed the commercials (and possibly endured some psychic damage). Many viewers loved the commercials enough that they took the trouble to record them on videotape. And real fans still enjoy them enough years later to convert their favorite spots to digital and upload them to the web.
What is undeniable is that as the ad campaign aired, Federated grew. The 14 store local chain that Shadoe Stevens started working for grew to more than 70 stores in California, Texas and Arizona. Sources agree that Federated dominated their market in the mid-80s. One figure shows that the campaign increased sales 500%.
But the VCR wave that buoyed Federated and other electronics stores finally broke. Technological improvements meant VCRs became cheaper and profits thinner. Big Box stores like Costco could undersell even the most insane price-cutting by Fred Rated and Crazy Eddie. And sales booms are made to bust: when something new like a VCR comes along, suddenly everyone needs one. But then the next day, everyone already has one. So stores like DOW and (Nobody Beats) The Wiz began to go bankrupt. Federated was bought by Atari in 1987, and a year later they sold off most of the stores.
Boosted by the popularity of the ad campaign, Shadoe Stevens had already moved on to bigger things, including movie deals, television shows, and hosting American Top 40 from 1988 to 1995. Today Stevens is most recognized for his mainstream gigs: announcer for The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, actor on the sitcom Dave’s World, The Hollywood Squares, and AT40. But his best work has always been those projects over which he has had full creative control such as his TV movie Shadoevision < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0ojWaDOVR8> and his syndicated radio show Mentalradio.
Thanks to many southern Californians’ media-fried brain cells and the hypnotic appeal of Stevens’ television wave voodoo, many Fred Rated commercials have made their way to YouTube. This upload lists itself as the “best of” although with 1200 to look through, the authority of that claim is doubtful. Many of my favorites (especially the Indiana Jones parodies) are missing from this bunch, but there are several other sets on YouTube as well. And for the dedicated Fred Rated junkie there is even a documentary about Shadoe, Laugh Now Think Later, which also serves as a great introduction to the insanity.