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 buy a policy right now.

Amanda Shih author photo


Amanda Shih

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is an insurance editor and licensed Life, Health, and Disability agent at Policygenius in New York City. Her work has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

Updated December 2, 2021|5 min read

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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. "Especially before TV and digital advertising, which operate under a more modern, nuanced worldview and allow consumers to contextualize what they're seeing. An old ad that relied 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 there’s useful advice to be found beneath the dramatic setups: 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 discover the timeless advice behind these vintage ads that you can apply to buying life insurance right now.


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 $500,000 term insurance policy in your 30s, it can cost as little as $25 to $30 per month over 20 years. 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

Vintage LI ads - Sick!

Source: Prudential Life Insurance (1926)

By the 1920s, men weren’t being spared from the advertising scare tactics either. The upshot of this ad is that if, like this man, you become ill after your life insurance lapses, you’ll leave your beneficiaries without financial protection if you die. Your life insurance policy lapses if you fail to make your premium payments on time. Most policies allow for a grace period of 30 to 31 days, but if you fail to pay before that period ends, you’ll lose your policy and the protection that comes with it.

Even in the best circumstances, reinstating your policy after a lapse can introduce unnecessary complications. You may need to retake the medical exam, which could result in higher premiums if your health has worsened. And a policy lapse also resets the contestability period, during which the insurer may review your policy for intentional errors or 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

Vintage LI ads - Can you relax

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. Whether you’ve experienced physical symptoms of stress noted here, like high blood pressure, or experience clinical anxiety, you should let your insurer know.

Buying life insurance when you’re not in perfect health isn’t as complicated as you might think. For example, if you experience anxiety or depression, you may pay more for life insurance depending on your diagnosis and treatment regimen, but the increase may not be significant if you are otherwise healthy. In this case, being frank is the best choice: 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.

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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 harsh terms, it’s an important one: How much life insurance do you need to replace your household contributions if you pass away? Our experts recommend 10-15 times your income as a rule of thumb, but to account for all of your family’s financial needs you should factor in more than your salary. If you have children or shared debts like a mortgage, your policy’s coverage amount should be high enough to account for those expenses in addition to daily costs of living.

Use Policygenius’ free life insurance calculator to find out how much coverage is right for you.

Buy life insurance for your spouse

Vintage LI ads - If your wife died tomorrow

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, our experts 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

Vintage LI ads - Don't buy 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 may not be the best investment vehicle for most people, but it could be worth exploring if you’re a high-income earner who has exhausted your other investing options.

Learn more about the different types of life insurance and find out which is right for you.