ON TRACK

Chil­dren’s favourite Thomas the Tank En­gine gets a re­vamp from the United Na­tions

Calgary Herald - - YOU - STEVEN ZEITCHIK

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

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.

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