What insurance ads from the past can teach us today

Advertising methods may have changed, but these vintage life insurance ads include important tips you can use to shop for a policy right now.

Amanda Shih author photo


Amanda Shih

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is an editor and a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert at Policygenius, where she writes about life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

Updated | 5 min read

Policygenius content follows strict guidelines for editorial accuracy and integrity. Learn about our editorial standards and how we make money.

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.

→ Learn more about how much life insurance costs

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.

→ Learn more about life insurance lapses and how to avoid them

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.

→ Learn more about how your overall health affects your life insurance premiums

Ready to shop for life insurance?

Start calculator

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.

→ Use our free life insurance calculator to find out how much coverage you need

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.

→ Learn more about buying life insurance as a married couple

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.

Life insurance isn't the best investment vehicle for most people, but it could be worth exploring if you’re a high-income earner who has exhausted other investing options.

→ Learn more about the different types of life insurance