Dick Van Dyke, say it isn't so. Gavin MacLeod, how could you? Those two celebrities have been all over the cable TV stations, promoting low-cost life insurance to older people. But as former Wisconsin insurance commissioner Thomas Fox sees it, they're "duping" many people into "buying a product that is clearly unsuitable for their particular needs." He even wrote them letters about it, but they didn't reply.

Oh, no, Ed McMahon, Lorne Greene, Tennessee Ernie Ford, you too?

They push health insurance for the elderly -- McMahon for Colonial Penn Franklin Insurance, the others for National Home Life Assurance. Earlier this month, Washington State's deputy insurance commissioner, Patricia Petersen, got a cease-and-desist order against the companies, for violating state laws against "false, deceptive or misleading advertising."

Van Dyke speaks for National Benefit Life of New York City and MacLeod for Continental American Life in Newark. Both firms advertise low-cost life insurance (for as little as $4.95 a month), available to older people regardless of health. They assure the elderly that the policy will "protect your savings" (MacLeod) and provide "protection for your loved ones" (Van Dyke).

But will it really? Often not. If you live for just a few years, you'll have paid more in premiums than you'll get back in death benefits -- so these policies actually cost your loved ones money.

The TV ads don't mention how much insurance $5 a month buys, but it isn't much -- only $500 for a 65-year-old, and less as you get older. At age 70, your coverage would drop to only $350 for the same $5 monthly premium.

By age 71, you'd have paid a total of $360 for the coverage. So from that point on, you'd be spending more than you'll ever get back. The longer you live, the more the policy eats into the very savings that it is supposed to be "protecting." (Your beneficiaries do get a larger payout if you die in an accident, but that's unlikely.)

Some of the elderly might still consider this coverage a good deal because they are ill and aren't sure they'll live very long. But the policies won't pay if you die of natural causes during the first two years -- so you're gambling on at least that much health. If you die too soon, the insurers will merely return the money you spent on the policy.

Bernard Dempsey, vice president and general counsel for Continental American, says he hasn't heard from MacLeod about Wisconsin's complaint. "People in that {older} age bracket are thought to be unable to handle TV ads, but they're not overwhelmed," he said. However, he says, Continental sat down with insurance officials in Delaware and is revising its fall ad campaign -- taking out phrases that would give the "impression that these policies keep your whole estate intact."

National Benefit spokesman Ken Koprowski says that his company has no plans to change its advertising, and that Van Dyke thought that Fox's letter did not call for a response. "Consumers have 30 days to review the policy they asked for before the first premium is due," he says. "This is a special product for people who are ill and can't get other forms of insurance. All the limitations are listed in the material."

As for Colonial Penn and National Home, their ads exaggerate your likely out-of-pocket costs for a typical hospital stay, Petersen said. They scare the elderly, she said, by suggesting that a typical bill would be $20,020 for 150 days in the hospital. In fact, the average hospital stay for a Medicare beneficiary is only five days. Further, National Home implies that without insurance, the elderly will have to cut back on their medical care -- which is not necessarily so, Petersen said.

Allen Keysor, senior counsel for Colonial Penn, said its ads mention that bills are that high only for "a very long stay" -- so "I don't think we've unfairly represented anything," he said. National Home Life's president, Donald Kennedy, said his company would "sit down and chat" with Washington officials about the wording of the ads. "But insurance is to protect you against the unexpected loss, even though it only happens one in 500 times," he added.

A task force of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners will look into the special problems raised by advertising to the elderly, including celebrity advertising. Celebrities "create an immediate trust and therefore advertising in this area should be controlled," says task-force member Jerry Whitfield, California's special deputy insurance commissioner for aging problems.

The pity of it is that these celebrities don't notice that themselves. Some people, it seems, will do almost anything for a buck.