Grant Shapps and the mysterious testimonials
Have you ever come across Corinne Stockheath of Surrey? Or Dr JLM Richards of the Wallerson Trust in Dallas, Texas? Or Richard Warton of Tektriox in New York?
Please let me know if you have, as I’m having great trouble finding them. And, as you may have seen on Channel 4 News last night, the Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps doesn’t seem very keen to help me find them.
But Mr Shapps insists they do all exist, and are genuine people. All three names provided glowing testimonials for an online guide on How To Write a Newsletter which Mr Shapps sold in the days he called himself Michael Green.
This was all part of an internet business called HowToCorp from home, selling online self-help guides and other products. I can’t find a Corinne Stockheath in Surrey. And though Stockheath is a highly plausible surname, but I can’t find anyone called Stockheath anywhere in the world – apart from a minor PG Wodehouse character, Lord Percy Stockheath.
Nor can I find a place or business called Tektriox in New York, or a Wallerson Trust in Dallas. Now it is perfectly possible that all these people do exist, and that their testimonials are genuine, as Grant Shapps insists, but I have yet to be persuaded.
And it’s not just these names which worry me. It’s also hard to find evidence for many of the other people who provided testimonials which helped promote Mr Shapps’ products.
Now, following a complaint from a blogger, the Advertising Standards Authority, the ASA, is investigating the matter. Under the advertising code all testimonials must be unsolicited and from genuine people. Quite apart from that, as I’m sure Mr Shapps would agree, fake testimonials are simply dishonest.
I note that in another of his online products Michael Green has a chapter on “How to Solicit Testimonials Easily, Quickly and on Autopilot”.
I’d love to know what the chapter says, but alas, I can’t buy it any more. The HowToCorp website was selling products until a few days ago, but has now closed down. Not only that, but the archived pages which were available in the Wayback Archive have also been removed.
Still, I managed to print off a lot of HowToCorp’s material before it disappeared. And so did other people. And no doubt the ASA will ask to see the pages which have been removed.
Mr Shapps insists that he hasn’t run HowToCorp since the summer of 2008 when he resigned as a director and handed over his shares to his wife Belinda, who remains the sole director. But many of the puzzling testimonials date from the time Mr Shapps was running the business.
Until two weeks ago Michael Green (be it Grant or Belinda Shapps) was also selling for $29.77 a facsimile online edition of what “Green” claimed was a rare book called The Meaning of Dreams, published in 1915 and now out of copyright. The only copy Green had managed to find in a bookshop cost $249.97, he claimed.
You can, in fact, find a facsimile edition of The Meaning of Dreams online for absolutely nothing. And 68 copies are available on the AbeBooks second-hand book site for only a few pounds. I bought one for £7.42 (plus postage). These are just a couple of the aspects of the Shapps internet business which raise questions.
In the circumstances one can perhaps understand why an ambitious politician might want to trade under a different name. But it does seem astonishing that before David Cameron appointed Grant Shapps he didn’t get anyone to check up on all this for themselves.
The Conservative party told Channel 4 News: “The sites are over a decade old. Any testimonials were properly acquired at the time and the ASA has details of representative customers’ testimonials.”
Follow Michael on Twitter via @michaellcrick