But today, according to both food advocates and McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, America's most recognizable clown won't go near a Big Mac.
"You don't see Ronald McDonald in schools. You don't see him eating food," Thompson said Thursday at the company's annual shareholder meeting, according to multiple reports.
This, health activists say, is so McDonald's can deflect criticism that it willfully markets the unhealthy food to children.
"They think that by not having him consume the food, it's not encouraging kids to patronize the brand," said Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability International, a food advocacy group that has been pushing for Ronald's retirement for years.
In the past, said Bragg, McDonald's has been criticized for having Ronald visit schools to teach phys ed and appear in connection with charities that work on behalf of sick children.
The company has kept Ronald at arm's length from its food for years now, nutrition advocates say.
"At least since they joined the Better Business Bureau program in 2006, they've been saying they wouldn't use Ronald McDonald to sell food," said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that says it helped persuade McDonald's to join an inititative run by the BBB that sets nutrition standards for advertising food to children under 12.
And Ronald's abstemious habits may go back much further than that. Geoffrey Giuliano, who portrayed Ronald in public appearances in the late 1970s and early 1980s and is today an outspoken critic of the company, once said in an interview that he "was never allowed to eat the food" while in character because it would have been "unseemly."
In 2007, Jim Skinner, then CEO of McDonald's, told Reuters that "Ronald McDonald has never sold food to kids in the history of his existence."
When asked if it was official policy to keep Ronald McDonald away from the food he was created to promote, McDonald's spokeswoman Becca Hary said only that "when Ronald McDonald appears in public, he is focused on spreading joy and smiles." Hary declined to comment on how long this has been the case.
Marketing experts say it doesn't really matter whether Ronald is ever actually seen eating in public: Kids will still associate him with Big Macs and Happy Meals.
"Kids are hardwired to think that he equals McDonald's," said branding strategist Adam Hanft, founder of the marketing firm Hanft Projects.
"There's a test in marketing where they put people under a full magnetic resonance imaging machine, like a brain scan essentially, and they show people images, and different parts of the brain light up," Hanft said. "If you showed kids Ronald McDonald, all the reward centers of the brain would go f***ing crazy like July 4th. Because he equals the hamburger."
Watch: A McDonald's ad from the 1960s features Ronald McDonald pulling hamburgers out of a magic belt.
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