Redefining the envelope

A couple of weeks ago, in the comments to a previous post, Helen asked me to investigate the alarming growth in the number of press releases that claim to redefine something. As we enter Lent, when the chief operating officer of Christianity redefined resistance to temptation, it’s a good time to compile the stats on this one:

As you can see, Helen’s correct. Last year there were about two and a quarter times as many redefinitions in the PR Newswire press release database, which is the base for this graph, as there were in 2002. It’s no longer enough just to be something: you also have to pretend that you’ve also made it impossible for anything else to be it either.

And you can also add in extra words that fulfill no purpose whatsoever. This, I believe, is what people call adding value. If you’re going to go to the trouble of redefining a category, why not radically or fundamentally redefine it? I’m assuming that whoever writes the release charges extra for this.

From the press releases in the sample that I read before I got a headache and had to stop, marketing-led redefinitions break down into several types. For most of them the redefinition seems suspiciously like the old definition, with the sole difference being that there’s something else for us to buy.

(It’s an obscure point of logic, but if we allow the definition of a category to change each time that a new example of something that fits into that category comes along, then we also redefine the concept of “definition”. What seems like nothing more than a bad press release may also be undermining analytic philosophy, product by tedious product. At least that’s what I understand from reading this excellent comic book about Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Now back to the silly jokes.)

Other copywriters try harder and are pushing, or perhaps redefining, the envelope. Sometimes there isn’t even time to define the thing before it is redefined. Innovation moves so fast these days. For example, Sikorsky is currently claiming to Redefine the Future of Vertical Flight.

Meanwhile at The North Face, Chris Fanning, executive director of The Outdoor Foundation, is claiming that its online resource (a web site), means that “young leaders from across the country will be empowered to reclaim, redefine and rediscover the outdoors”. I quite like the outdoors and the online resource is admirable, but I’d have to quibble with the extent of the redefinition. Tell me if I’m wrong, but surely the only way for me to “redefine” the outdoors is to move my door? Even that seems like pretty small beer.

I’m sure this online resource will empower young leaders to learn a lot about the outdoors – with the limitation that they’ll unfortunately be indoors while they’re doing it – but many will be disappointed when they realise they can’t actually redefine it yet. The rest of us can take comfort from the fact that the outdoors will still be out there, as unredefined as it was before overwrought copywriting was invented.

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3 Responses to “Redefining the envelope”


  1. 1 Aaron February 15, 2010 at 11:14 am

    More commercial opacity ‘redefined’. Love the graph.

  2. 2 Manek February 15, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Can the envelope be re-defined, once it’s been pushed?

    • 3 Tim Phillips February 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm

      While elements of the envelope remain anchored to existing mores and concepts, the act of pushing, in itself, may be interpreted as a spatial redefinition of… honestly, I’ve no idea


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