Humanitarian organizations have in the past 10 years enjoyed immense support with their western publics. At the same time, however, the humanitarian sector is under increasing pressure from various sources, under scrutiny for its administration costs, its marketized practices and its alleged politicization. Some say that humanitarianism is in crisis. This article examines the development of humanitarian advertising through analysis of 124 newspaper ads published in the period from 1970 to 2005. Using a discourse analytical approach which combines institution analysis with multimodal text analysis, it draws out the most marked changes that can be observed in the mode of appeal employed during this period, with a view to understanding the impact of the changing conditions of existence of humanitarian organizations on their public appeal. The article exposes an increasing submission of humanitarian organizations to external demands, in terms of their choice of beneficiaries for public attention and in terms of the symbolic relations they set up between donors and beneficiaries. It is argued that this development is associated with a paradox of power and results in humanitarian organizations surrendering their moral authority and professional expertise.