As the pressure to win the holiday shopping battle builds, marketers are inventing creative ways to help parents strategize.
Enter Jonna Mendez.
After a 27-year career at the CIA, the former "chief of disguise" (yes, that was her actual title) has an unconventional retirement job — teaching parents to scope out their kids' wish lists. Mendez's official role is Target's "Kids' Gift Detective." This season, she is sharing years of spy expertise in an online series that will guide mommy-bloggers in their quest to identify their children's favorite things.
To parents whose children have no problem stating exactly what they want, the whole exercise may seem pointless. Mendez said she wondered about the same thing when Target approached her with the idea. But she knew from her own experience that children think in different ways.
"My son didn't want to give me his list," she said. "It was between him and Santa — I was never in that equation."
Over the years, Mendez said, she applied basic CIA techniques to find out what her son wanted, shop discreetly and keep gifts hidden until Christmas morning. That led to some of the pointers she is giving parents, chockablock with all the movie-spy jargon you might expect.
To find out what kids really want, she recommends talking to people close to them — or "access agents" — who hear ideas that parents may not. "Your son's coach at school might know that he wants that Nerf blaster gun more than anything," she said.
Another way to guess children's holiday wishes is to encourage "clandestine communication" with Santa Claus, she said. Ask them to write "invisible" letters using milk or lemon juice so no one can read them. Parents can see the ink by warming up the letter, using nothing more than a hair dryer.
The CIA also used secret ink, Mendez said. "But it was not milk or lemon juice."
Finally, to hide holiday gifts, Mendez suggests moving them to an "off-site location" (spy talk for "next door") or using "concealment devices" (simply covering presents in brown wrapping paper and sticking on a mailing address). Mendez said she would simply mislabel her son's gift, placing his father's name on it instead.
After a career that involved staying firmly out of the spotlight, Mendez, 68, has embraced it. She is one half of a CIA couple; her husband, Antonio Mendez, is the former agent Ben Affleck portrayed in the 2012 political thriller Argo. (Her husband jokes that Affleck wasn't "good looking enough" to play him, she said.)
Jonna Mendez moved through several departments during her tenure at the CIA, but her specialty was clandestine photography in the Office of Technical Service. The office was not unlike "Q in James Bond," she said.