"Fast food has been a very important promotional partner in promoting films to children," said industry analyst Lowell Singer of Cowen and Co. "As the animated marketplace gets more competition over the next few years, Disney will need to be much more aggressive and creative in reaching children though other promotional outlets."
Restaurant analysts don't expect the bottom line of McDonald's to suffer if other studios and toy companies pick up where Disney left off. Children may not even notice.
Elizabeth Calvin, a West Los Angeles mother who occasionally takes her 7-year-old son Gabriel to McDonald's, said the change won't make a difference to him. "He definitely is interested in the toy aspect more than the food," she said. "I'm not sure he really cares which toy it is. He likes the ones that are little games more than he does the plastic characters."
Happy Meals are marketed to children between the ages of 3 and 9. A Happy Meal with a cheeseburger, small fries and Sprite totals 670 calories, with 26 grams of fat and 4.5 grams of trans fat -- the fat type that experts say is particularly dangerous. In recent years, McDonald's has added healthful alternatives such as apples and low-fat milk.
McDonald's won't say how much of its business comes from the sale of Happy Meals. But a good toy promotion can double or triple those sales.
Blame impressionable young minds and "the nag factor," said Jerome Williams, a professor and advertising expert at the University of Texas. "Kids see a movie, and see it's being promoted with a particular product, they'll nag their parents about it," he said. "Studies have shown that, after a while, parents will give in to their children.... They're not so much expressing a preference for a Happy Meal but for the character the Happy Meal is associated with."
According to a study released last month by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19% of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight, and 17% of teenagers are overweight.
Those figures may be conservative, said James O. Hill, director of the University of Colorado's Center for Human Nutrition. He said new government data suggest that as many as 40% of young children are overweight and about 20% fall into the obese category.
"The government doesn't use the term 'obese' for children," Hill said. "They use the terms 'overweight' and 'at risk for overweight' [that are] comparable to 'obese' and 'overweight' for adults. Very few of those kids are going to grow out of it. Most of them are going to grow up to be overweight and obese adults."
Other factors contributed to the unraveling of the McDonald's-Disney alliance. Although the relationship boasted hit promotions for such films as "101 Dalmatians" and "Lilo & Stitch," some McDonald's franchisees began to chafe when the studio churned out clunkers like "Treasure Planet." The company also had to abide by Disney's strict rules regarding use of its characters, which were not allowed to be seen eating McDonald's food.
For its part, Disney grew disgruntled with some of McDonald's advertising efforts and had problems with the fast-food giant's toy production schedule, according to a high-level Disney executive. The studio had to lock down release dates at least 18 months ahead of time to accommodate the needs of McDonald's. If the studio moved the date, it had to pay a penalty to McDonald's.
Hollywood and fast food have been closely aligned since the 1980s, with some sort of fast-food tie-in to almost every major film targeting children.
An exception is the "Harry Potter" franchise, which had only one promotional partner, Coca-Cola, for the first two movies, and none for the last two.
That's in part because "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling went on record stating that "fast-food kids meals would be her worst nightmare," said Diane Nelson, executive vice president of global brand management for Warner Bros. "She made it clear she had an aversion to it. "We ... decided internally it was not the right way to approach the brand."
Nelson said Warner Bros. planned to continue fast-food tie-ins to promote other films, and noted that the industry now offered more healthful alternatives to give people a choice.
"We are certainly conscious and watching the situation with childhood obesity and how that is being tied in with our business.... It's important to be responsible."
That said, Nelson added, "we're not going to walk away from the category."