Influence is both a portrait of controversial advertising and public relations executive, Lord Timothy Bell, and a disturbing examination of influence in a world of weaponised communication.
In Richard Poplak and Diana Neille’s fascinating documentary, Bell - who died last year - talks about his childhood, his career in advertising (he is described as the ampersand in Saatchi & Saatchi) and the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of his notorious public relations and advertising firm, Bell Pottinger.
At the beginning of the film, Bell states that he would like to tell the truth and set the record straight. Meanwhile, experts and academics put his story into context. For better or worse, Bell was at the centre of the rise of the influence industry.
Bell was also, of course, famous for being behind Margaret Thatcher’s “Labour Isn’t Working” slogan. In addition, we discover that he worked with the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, before branching out into France, Africa, Russia and the Middle East.
All the while, public relations and advertising were becoming increasingly scientific. Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s holding company, SCL Group, explains that advertising mutated to became a dangerously effective weapon.
Influence explores how, in some countries, democracy has been for sale to the highest bidder. It is absolutely chilling to see example after example of vote rigging, media manipulation and the use of fear and violence as political tools.
Such behind the scenes machinations finally caught up with Bell Pottinger. On 19 March 2017, the South African Sunday Times alleged that the company was behind a social media strategy that attempted to influence public opinion, exacerbate racism and sow racial division in South Africa. The company did not survive the scandal.
The downfall of Bell Pottinger did not signal the end of the influence industry, of course. We only need to glance at the news today to understand that our democracy remains under siege. Always on hand with a sobering comment, Oakes explains how Russia is years ahead in this field.
However, amid the doom and despair, Poplak and Neille’s documentary ends with a note of hope.
When South Africans realised what Bell Pottinger was doing in their country, they rose up - mobilised by a remarkable social media campaign. Even better - in what South African politician, Phumzile Van Damme, calls a “beautiful moment of unity” - they won.