L.A. Vintage Commercials: Fred Rated
Cast your mind back to the mid- to late-1980s, a time when all the big players were coked out of their minds. Ivan Boesky. Max Headroom. Tommy Lasorda. And not just celebs, either. My great-grandma was always on the blow. Ditto my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Felsch. Even the standard poodle my parents got me when my other dog got run over by a dump truck. Everyone.
Now imagine that you’re a local SoCal electronics store with only five locations and you want to make a splash. What better way to do this than to hook yourself up with a local radio DJ whose manic style meshes perfectly with the cultural zeitgeist of the time?
This is the backstory of Federated, and more specifically of Fred Rated, who was the ad-spokesman brainchild of the aforementioned Eureka moment. Federated’s commercials were driven largely by their star, DJ-turned-telepersonality Shadoe Stevens. His Fred Rated character emanated a frenetic absurdity that was perfect for the whacked-out materialism of the age.
And this wasn’t just another pitch-man hawking 37-inch projection TVs ($1697 in 1985 dollars) or great deals on three-packs of blank Maxell VHS cassettes. What made these ads unforgettable was Rated’s eye-bulging, tooth-clenching, forehead-sweating intensity. Federated’s ads were an orgy of violence. They often saw Rated working himself into a froth while destroying Betamaxes with an enormous hammer; or gesturing with wanton aggression at the camera while rattling off bargains at an enormous rate of speed, while RCA televisions were falling to earth and exploding around him; or attacking, decapitating, and then continuing to assault a puppet made in his own likeness. And he did it all wearing the same white sport coat over the same pastel T-shirt.
Stevens’ intensity extended even off-screen: he and his team produced an astonishing 1200 commercials for the Federated in six years during the mid-1980s, and the ad campaign gained national notoriety, capped by a two-page spread in Time magazine. And with such force of creative personality behind them, the chain itself–which numbered a mere handful at the inception of the ad campaign–grew to encompass 78 superstores in five states at its peak (though it fell on hard times when national chains like Circuit City came on the scene and was acquired by Atari in 1989).
Spurred on in large part by the fame garnered by the Fred Rated ads, Shadoe Stevens went on to a colorful career in entertainment, hosting America’s Top 40 in the post-Kasem era and occupying several different Hollywood Squares. He even dabbled in film, most notably “Kentucky Fried Movie” and the famous Corman gore-and-bobbling-cleavage romp “Bucket of Blood.” But I think his best work was his earliest, the series of Federated ads that made no real sense but nevertheless captured the imagination of a region wired on blow and thirsty for the best Zenith VCRs and Fisher audio systems money could buy.