Advertisers want to grab your attention. Sometimes that means getting a little over-the-top, especially when they’re selling a product that we don’t often associate with playfulness, like life insurance. "Ads are a product of their times and audiences," says Phoebe Rowe, a former ad agency senior copywriter. "An old ad that relies on exaggerated copy and scenarios would have been effective at the time because consumers had little else to compare it to and therefore little reason to doubt its premise or think beyond its face value in a way that wouldn't be true today."
Some of these ads are dated, but the underlying advice is timeless: Make sure that everyone in your household has the coverage they need and knows what factors go into the price of your premiums. Read on to see how life insurance ads have changed over the years and apply their lessons to buying your own life insurance right now.
1910 to 1940
Life insurance is affordable financial protection for your loved ones
Source: Harvey A. Gallup (1917)
In 1917, when few women had control over their own finances, ads exaggerated the threat of being widowed to sell life insurance to couples. Today you’re probably in a more equal and financially responsible relationship than Tom Jones and his wife, so it’s unlikely you’ll leave your spouse penniless when you die. But it’s true that life insurance is a relatively affordable way to secure financial support for your loved ones when you’re gone.
If you buy a 20-year, $500,000 term insurance policy at age 35, it can cost as little as $25.56. Your loved ones can put that death benefit toward funeral costs, existing debts, and their continued financial needs.
Beware of life insurance lapses
Source: Prudential Life Insurance (1926)
Men weren’t spared from advertising scare tactics either. The upshot of this ad is that if, like this man, you become ill and die after your life insurance lapses, you’ll leave your beneficiaries without financial protection. Your life insurance policy lapses if you don't pay your premiums before the end of your insurer's 30- to 31-day late payment grace period.
Reinstating your policy after a lapse introduces unnecessary complications. You may need to retake the medical exam, which could result in higher premiums. A policy lapse also resets the contestability period, during which the insurer can review your policy for intentional omissions and deny or reduce the death benefit amount if they find any.
Your health affects your life insurance premiums
Source: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (1936)
While this ad uses terms like “nervousness” and “tension” to talk around the effects of anxiety and stress, it’s always important to be upfront about your entire medical profile when you apply for life insurance. If you’ve experienced physical symptoms of stress like high blood pressure or have an anxiety disorder, you should let your insurer know.
Don't worry about buying life insurance when you're not in perfect health. For example, if you have anxiety or depression, you may pay more for a policy, but the increase may not be significant if you are otherwise healthy. Lying about any diagnosis puts you at risk of losing your coverage, and insurers look favorably on active and consistent treatment for any health issues you may have.
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1950 to 1980
Make sure you have enough life insurance
Source: United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. (1961)
Flipping the 1917 image of a destitute widow on its head almost 50 years later, “What is a man’s life worth?” is an ominous question. But put in less shocking terms, it’s an important one: How much life insurance do you need to replace your household contributions if you pass away?
Policygenius advisors recommend 10 to 15 times your income as a rule of thumb. Add the cost of raising children or shared debts like a mortgage to your calculations to ensure your family has all of their needs covered.
Buy life insurance for your spouse
Source: Alexander Hamilton Life (1965)
Though this ad takes an old-school view of marriage, it does contain a more progressive lesson: While not every person works outside of their home, every spouse makes non-financial contributions through cooking, cleaning, and childcare. And if one spouse passes away, those duties either fall to the surviving partner or a professional like a housecleaner or nanny.
Couples should ensure their life insurance plans account for all contributions to their household. While a joint policy or spousal rider are options for married couples, we generally suggest buying two separate policies to avoid complications or payout delays. Spouses who don’t earn an income are typically able to get a separate policy based on the amount of coverage that their income-earning spouse receives.
Research the different types of life insurance
Source: Northwestern Mutual Life (1980)
By 1980, the messaging is more pragmatic and less controversial: It’s important to carefully research the company and decide what type of life insurance policy you want before making your final decision. While a term policy is the best type of insurance for most people, there are other life insurance options that might better suit your specific situation, like the cash value policy mentioned in this ad, which earns interest over time.