“Honest Abe” in Commercial Culture

Each of the images below have a URL connected to their site of origin upon clicking them for more information about both the topic and the image in question.

This GEICO insurance company commercial has included several aspects meant to turn viewers heads when they stare at screens waiting for their show to return. The commercial makes use of cultural memory of Abraham Lincoln as “Honest Abe”, one of the memory’s that remains in popular culture. Playing on this aspect of Lincoln, the commercial asks whether their claim of saving the consumer “15% or more on car insurance” is actually possible and answers its own question by asking another that American consumers claim to know the answer to simply by relying on what public memory tells us: “Was Abe Lincoln honest?” Of course!

The commercial also makes use of the modern selling point of humor. Abe Lincoln’s honesty that we are all so sure of seems to put him in an awkward position when his wife (presumably) Mary asks him whether the dress makes her backside look big. The commercial juxtaposes the traditional Abe Lincoln with today’s politicians who are thought to be lying and scandalous in nature (think Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), using this contrast as a selling point for why the consumer should choose GEICO over other insurance companies. Interestingly, the commercial does not directly claim to be able to save 15% or more on car insurance, simply implies that it can as obviously as Abe Lincoln was honest. While this may seem clever play on words, it is not original to GEICO. This play on Lincoln’s honesty is linked to several other products and used in the same way of validating a product and the company’s honesty without submitting themselves to the potential hassle of a lawsuit should the product fail to work to the consumer’s satisfaction.

The aspect of Lincoln’s memory that is primarily at play here is the idea of the “Honest Abe” that has managed to reverberate within our culture for several years as a token aspect of remembering Lincoln. Much along the lines of distanciation, the community has chosen to revere Lincoln as one of the great forefathers of our country, uniting the United States once again, abolishing slavery, and standing for the ultimate freedom! However, the name was a creation of those close to Lincoln, not those affected by his reign as president- the nickname was given to him by his campaign team in an attempt to give Americans what they seemed to want- a simple man who had honest virtues and could find a fix to the current American tension. In this way, historian Merrill D. Peterson labels Honest Abe not as the Abraham Lincoln that actually existed, but as the personification of the American values that the population so yearned for and still upholds with dignity: honesty, kindness, temperance, industry, and pluck, or courage. To put it into Zelizer’s terms, these values were given the materiality of an image to represent them, therefore becoming usable by giving something of an icon that represents American ideals, the image just happening to coincide with Abraham Lincoln as president.

However, are these five values upheld in the true Abe whose name now imparts such honorable traits? Frederick Douglass recalls meeting the president and how he was treated politely, but was aware of the difference between a white American treating a black American decently and treating him with respect. Lincoln was not so extreme in his courage and push for freedom as many Americans now believe- he had a slave owning wife whose values and relatives he welcomed into his life and upheld the prevailing white supremacy of the time. Despite this identity of his, however, no mention of white supremacy is brought to mind when regarding Honest Abe. Again, to use Zelizer’s terms, memory was processual, changing with time to forget the aspect of Lincoln that were not as honorable and would have diluted the icon that the Americans had so fully embraced. Instead of admitting the flaws in the icon or even changing it, the image of “honest Abe” went about the process of eliminating the unfavorable aspects in favor of creating an upstanding image without imperfection.

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Lincoln’s image as a rail splitter.


An image that coincided with that of “Honest Abe” is the image of the “rail splitter” Lincoln. The “rail splitter” image portrayed Lincoln with an ax in hand and performing difficult labor, presenting the idea of the “self made man”. This was also an idea that was used frequently in Lincoln’s campaigning image, relating well with the honesty that was presented on the one hand and the hard work and earnestness that was shown on the other. Lincoln’s ax therefore became the associated symbol of Lincoln’s honesty in a way by denoting not only his life as a rail splitter and the hard work that he put into it, but the earnest and honest way in which he worked. More information on Lincoln’s ax and his image as a rail-splitter can be found at https://livinglincoln.web.unc.edu/2015/04/08/abraham-lincoln-in-film-taking-on-the-role-of-a-vampire-hunter/, also giving insight into the image of Lincoln now portrayed in film.


Play on Lincoln’s image as “Honest Abe” used in commercial culture of product sales.


“Honest Abe” used as a means of validating a product and the manufacturer.

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Lincoln’s original campaign button during the creation of “Honest Abe”.


In other means of using “Honest Abe” in commercialization, several products are presented as either a joke or a way to promote the company’s honesty in a way that will play of the American public’s sympathies. There are a large amount of “honest Abe” costumes that reinforce the idea that the most popular image of Lincoln modernly is his campaign nickname. There are also several products including a beard oil product that uses the title of “Honest Abe” in a way similar to what GEICO did, as a means of verifying their product through a cultural icon associated with honesty, the usability of the icon at its prime. The final category of item that is found to be sold under the headline of “Honest Abe” is memorabilia for the history guru’s that date back to Lincoln’s original campaign and point to the “beginning”, or as close as one can come to finding the beginning of an ongoing search for honesty, of the invented tradition of “Honest Abe”.


Sources (each citation is hyperlinked to its source)

Painter, Nell Irvin. “Honest Abe And Uncle Tom.” Canadian Review Of American Studies 30.3 (2000): 245. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 

Civil War Sightings. (2011).

Leidner, Gordon. “Lincoln’s Honesty.” Great American History. 24 Nov. 2012.

Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication (1995): 214–239. Print.

 Media Sources

 Ebay. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2050601.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.H0.Xhonest+abe.TRS0&_nkw=honest+abe&_sacat=0




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1 thought on ““Honest Abe” in Commercial Culture

  1. Maggie Brownrigg

    I think you chose good sites to analyze regarding this topic! One point that I think you could have emphasized more is that of the idea that the honesty of Abraham Lincoln has become a given in our society, as the Geico commercial suggests. Examining why and how Americans have assigned this virtue of honesty to one our the nations most prominent historical figures would provide more insight to the idea, and might connect to ideas of civic religion. Its interesting that you discussed how his image validates the brand of the products, I hadn’t thought of it that way but you made good points about it! Also, I don’t quite get the last quote you say at the end but maybe you were already planning on expanding upon that, since I am posting this pretty early still!

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