Children’s favourite Thomas the Tank Engine gets a revamp from the United Nations
NEW YORK On a recent afternoon, a corporate executive met with United Nations staffers at the organization’s landmark building high above the East River.
The executive wasn’t an energy or environmental mogul looking for a government contract. She was a senior marketing manager for Thomas the Tank Engine, Mattel’s musty toy brand about a rail car that speaks. And UN staffers, in person and Skyped in from around the globe, were there for an unusual purpose — to vet Thomas content for its UN-worthiness.
“So, what do you think?” said manager Megan Pashel, after playing a clip from a laptop in New York. “I was really impressed with the representation of gender equality,” said Tolulope Lewis Tamoka, Africa program adviser for UN Women, speaking from Nairobi. “I think this will make a strong impression on boys and girls. And it has gender-sensitive language, which is what UN Women really stands for.”
For more than 70 years, young children have been told stories about the mischievous Thomas and his track-bound pals, originally in a British book series and, in the past three decades, in a TV show titled Thomas & Friends.
But viewership and merchandise sales have been sharply declining in recent years. So, in what principals from both sides say is a first, Mattel has called on the United Nations to help, hoping that inclusive characters and “woke” messages will make the property more appealing to modern children.
Mattel and the United Nations have been engaged in an 18-month collaboration that has the diplomatic body helping shape storylines and characters on the series, now titled Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures!
“We think this can be a whole new way of collaborating,” said Richard Dickson, president and chief operating officer of Mattel.
The arrangement began when Mattel executives in early 2017 approached the United Nations and said they would like to work together. Soon UN staffers pitched ideas to Thomas brand managers. The parties were trying to figure out which of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals − the 17 objectives in areas such as poverty, hunger and sanitation it aims to achieve by 2030 — would make sense for storylines.
They eventually settled on six. Five of them — education, sustainable communities, responsible consumption, gender equity and “life on land,” about healthy ecosystems — will be featured in a total of nine of the 26 episodes and related short-form content this season. (A sixth goal, related to clean water, wound up on the cutting-room floor because it could not be worked in easily.)
To address gender equality, for instance, producers created female characters, including an orange car named Rebecca, an African car named Nia and a Chinese engine named Hong-Mei.
“Some think girls are weak, but I know that’s not true,” Thomas says after he is bested in a race — and rescued — by Hong-Mei.
The United Nations is not mentioned in the episodes; the Sustainable Development Goals are alluded to only in the credits.
“We felt strongly that we’d have more impact working on content,” said Jeffrey Brez, the UN chief of non-governmental-organization relations and advocacy. “Thomas is a global franchise in a larger number of countries and languages. They can do things we can’t. Our outreach capacity is very limited.”
Bringing together a commercial toy giant and a global altruistic organization has in the past led to some friction. A partnership between the United Nations and Warner Bros., for instance, ended abruptly in late 2016 shortly after the UN had named Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador for women. UN staffers protested the announcement, saying the character did not represent the organization’s feminist ideals.
Ian McCue, a longtime producer and writer on Thomas, said he was not certain the pact could work.
“For us, this was quite daunting, because in the back of our minds we’re thinking, ‘This is a show for preschoolers, for three- to fiveyear-olds,” he said. “But we started thinking really hard about which of these 17 Sustainable Development Goals would work for Thomas, and we finally felt we ended up with five that worked for us.”
For Mattel, of course, the aim is not just a more responsible citizenry but higher sales.
“Over the last several years, the brand has lost its way,” Dickson said. Thomas, he noted, “suffered setbacks against a rapidly changing preschool landscape.”
These messages, Dickson said, could change that.
“It’s not dissimilar to how we needed to change the conversation around Barbie,” he said, alluding to the decision to include more body types and racial inclusion after sales of the doll fell.
The addition of female engines is a clear bet that the brand, which skews male, can attract more girls.
Whether the makeover will provide that sales jolt remains to be seen. Barbie sales rose 24 per cent earlier this year thanks to the new dolls and a message of female empowerment.
Mattel certainly needs the brand reinvention to work. The Los Angeles-area company reported a loss of $240 million for the recent quarter, spurring a decision to cut more than 2,000 jobs. Its stock price has lost more than 50 per cent in the past two years, while larger changes in the toy business — such as the liquidation of American Toys “R” Us stores — have made the climate harsh.
The collaboration has not been welcomed by all. Some on the right say the new direction is a bone thrown to the left and politicizes a toy and its preschool audience.
“Goodbye Thomas the Tank Engine — and hello to Thomas the Politically Correct Outreach Officer for the United Nations,” wrote British journalist Quentin Letts in a column in the Daily Mail.
But those behind Thomas say this is not a matter of outsourcing Hollywood’s creative process. It is, they say, simply about having characters exist in the modern world.
“If you look at Thomas, the property has always been changing,” McCue said. “It was the books in the ’40s and TV series in the ’80s and then with CG (computer graphics) in the ’90s. This is just another change we needed to make.”
Mattel has asked the United Nations to help modernize its Thomas the Tank Engine brand with “woke” messages of inclusivity that will appeal to today’s preschoolers.