Photography: Boker Knives - Francis George

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True, we live in very permissive times, but you just don't see a lot of bondage in mainstream print advertising. Especially from an agency in Denver. Who even knew there was an agency in Denver? Karsh & Hagan, it turns out, has been in Denver since 1977, and the shop takes pains in its promo materials to point out it's not a boutique but a full-service member of the Omnicom Group - though some of its work is worthy of two guys working out of a studio apartment in Brooklyn, and we mean that in a good way. Which brings us to the new Boker knives campaign, shot by the appropriately Las Vegas-based Francis George: three ads that have immediately established themselves as the - sorry about this - cutting edge of the knife category.

So how in hell did this ever see the light of day? "The concept grew out of the fact that this client will let us do pretty much anything," explains art director Fred Sanicola. "They trust us, and we wanted to do something completely different, since the competition started mimicking our previous campaign, which had a lot of white space." Indeed, the earlier work simply features a knife, point down, on a field of white, with a small but snappy headline, like, "No animals were harmed in the making of this product. Yet." - this for a particular hunting knife. That's sure to incense PETA-philes, but it's still quite a leap from product shots to erotic torture. "We'd already established a strong brand identity, so we felt we could ratchet it up to the next level," shrugs copywriter Dean Del Calzo. "We could be conceptually bold and audacious. The previous campaign was headline-driven and that was actually considered controversial." And they point out it yielded a 100 percent increase in catalog requests and a 54 percent increase in sales. "This is a more visual solution to the strategy. This campaign works with any knife."

Or with none at all. After all, the only copy is, "There are times when you could really use a Boker. This isn't one of them." The creatives say the market consists mainly of hunters, paramilitary guys and knife collectors - OK, a percentage of that target may actually be into being dominated by a woman, but surely they'd never admit it. Is this a problem? "All we can say is so far we've gotten a good response," says Del Calzo. "This is intended to be light and irreverent, and that's the way it's being taken."

"We couldn't just have soft bondage," adds Sanicola. "There has to be an edge - we're talking to soldiers of fortune and hunters. These ads can't come across like they're a bunch of patsies." Hence jumper cables attached to the genitals? Like, ouch! "It could be the nipples," the guys protest. The huge hypodermic needle is a truth serum interrogation scene, as they see it. The other ad, which just features rope, is tame by comparison, though it does have a heel dangerously close to the crotch.

Which is surely nothing new for Francis George, a Frenchman who's been in the business for 15 years and in the States for nine. He used to live in Denver, which is how he hooked up with the Karsh fellas, and he's shot plenty of straight stuff for them, for clients like Vail Valley resort, Freedom Clothing and travel company Globus & Cosmos. But he also shot a fun little campaign they did around 1998 for a Denver fetish gear retailer, since closed, called Uzi. "We knew the owner, a little boutique client, and we took the opportunity to stretch our creative legs a bit," explains Del Calzo. Yeah, stretch them on the rack. Anyway, when asked if he has a fetish reputation, George laughs. "I like the visual aspect of it, it's very strong. And of course there's a little taboo aspect to it." Let's just say the man knows how to light leather. "When you photograph anything black, there is no definition to it, so in order to define leather you have to bounce light off it very precisely," he notes, going on to explain somewhat cryptically that he used to have friends who made fetish gear and he shot plenty of ads for them for British magazines. And his favorite photographer is - surprise! - Helmut Newton. "There's always an element of mystery in his work," he says. "He describes an action, but at the same time your mind can fill in the rest."

Was George surprised by the Boker concept? "A little bit, but at the same time, no. I like my advertising to be provocative, unconventional and disturbing. If you don't do something a little different, why do anything?" Moreover, he notes, as a former photojournalist, "I learned to work on the spot." This is by way of pointing out that in the jumper cable ad, "if you pay close attention, you'll notice the man is wet. That was not in the original idea. The shower was part of the set, of course, but the idea of wetting him down came to me on the spur of the moment."

Sweet! It's too damn bad Boker doesn't do TV.