Super Bowl ads cost a fortune. So when a group backing the presidential bid of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ran a 30-second ad for him during Sunday night’s game, the political world took notice.
How had the super PAC of a long-shot independent candidate paid for such a costly spot, and whose idea was it to adapt a vintage John F. Kennedy ad for his nephew’s campaign?
A major source of the funding — and the creative guidance — it turns out, was Nicole Shanahan, a lawyer, entrepreneur and Democratic donor who was once married to the Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
In an interview on Monday, Ms. Shanahan said she had given $4 million to the super PAC, American Values 2024, about a week before the game, for the express purpose of helping pay for a Super Bowl ad. She also helped coordinate the ad’s production, she said, including navigating concerns from CBS Sports and Paramount, which broadcast the Super Bowl.
“It seems like a great opportunity to highlight that he’s running for president,” Ms. Shanahan said. She said part of her motivation was concern about the environment, vaccines and children’s health, and her belief that Mr. Kennedy was willing to challenge the scientific establishment.
“I do wonder about vaccine injuries,” she said, although she clarified that she is “not an anti-vaxxer,” but wanted more screening of risks for vaccinations. “I think there needs to be a space to have these conversations.”
Mr. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, has become widely known in recent years for his work with the so-called medical freedom movement, which has promoted discredited claims about the risks of certain childhood vaccinations.
“I do think we have an environmental health crisis in this country,” Ms. Shanahan said. “I do believe Americans deserve clean water. And we can’t achieve that in the current climate of politics.”
Tony Lyons, a co-chairman of American Values 2024, confirmed Ms. Shanahan’s role and the timeline she sketched out of the ad’s production. He said several other donors had chipped in to pay for the ad, which cost $7 million. (The contributions, like Ms. Shanahan’s, will not appear in public filings until the super PAC files its next report, due later this month.)
A representative for Paramount Global declined to comment.
The ad, which adapted footage from a famous 1960 Kennedy campaign ad, drew criticism from some members of the Kennedy family, many of whom have criticized him for spreading conspiracy theories about vaccines and promoting other misinformation.
In a post on the social media site X on Sunday night, Mr. Kennedy distanced himself from the spot, noting that the super PAC is legally barred from consulting with the campaign, and saying he was “so sorry if the Super Bowl advertisement caused anyone in my family pain.”
As of Monday afternoon, the ad was still pinned to his profile, although it was later taken down. Stefanie Spear, the press secretary for the Kennedy campaign, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. On Sunday, she said the campaign had been “pleasantly surprised and grateful” for the ad.
Ms. Shanahan, 38, is a lawyer and tech entrepreneur in the Bay Area who has invested in scientific research, particularly in the areas of health and the environment. She was married to Mr. Brin in 2018; their divorce was finalized last summer.
Ms. Shanahan, who has a record of giving to Democrats — including to President Biden’s campaign in 2020 — and described herself on Monday as a “progressive through and through,” gave the maximum $6,600 contribution to Mr. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in May, when he was still seeking the Democratic nomination, records show.
But when Mr. Kennedy announced in October that he would instead run as an independent — a move he said was necessary because Democrats were blocking him from challenging Mr. Biden — Ms. Shanahan said she was “incredibly disappointed” and decided not to back him.
In recent weeks, she said, she has reconsidered, as she met people who were “really revved up” about Mr. Kennedy. “There are pockets of silent support all over the place,” she said.
On Feb. 2, she said, she spoke for the first time with Mr. Lyons, who told her that he wanted to run a Super Bowl ad but did not have the money.
American Values has said it raised more than $28 million last year, but that figure included $10 million in contributions from Gavin de Becker, a well-known security consultant — $9.7 million of which was refunded, records show.
The super PAC has said that the funds from Mr. de Becker, whose firm has provided security for Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, were “important bridge funding donations,” and that the money was returned to him when it wasn’t needed. “He continues to provide bridge funding, for example, $4 million he is donating in February,” Mr. Lyons said in a statement.
The super PAC also received $15 million last year from Timothy Mellon, a banking heir and businessman who also gave $10 million in 2023 to a super PAC supporting former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Mellon’s role has raised eyebrows among some Democrats, with fears widespread in the party that Mr. Kennedy could siphon votes away from Mr. Biden.
After the ad ran on Sunday night, the Democratic National Committee accused Mr. Kennedy of serving as a “Trump stalking horse” seeking to undermine Mr. Biden. In response, the super PAC said the D.N.C. was “using every political trick it can think of” to keep Mr. Kennedy off the ballot. (Mr. Biden’s allies have indeed been trying to stave off potential third-party presidential candidates.)
American Values 2024 had $14.8 million on hand at the end of December, according to its year-end report filed on Jan. 31. The super PAC has said it planned to spend upward of $15 million to support the Kennedy campaign’s efforts to place his name on the ballot in 12 states — an effort that is being challenged by the D.N.C., which last week filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing the groups of improper coordination.
Ms. Shanahan said that after her Feb. 2 phone call with Mr. Lyons, she sent the super PAC $4 million to help pay for a Super Bowl ad.
But the next day, a Saturday, Mr. Lyons told her that the ad they had been working on could not run because of concerns about laws that bar super PACs from coordinating with candidates. The ad included clips of Mr. Kennedy speaking to the camera, she said.
“Neither of us were willing to give up on the idea of the Super Bowl ad,” Mr. Lyons said. “He was being censored in so many different ways, such that many people in the United States did not know he was running, even though he’s been crisscrossing the country and working around the clock to get his message out.”
That night, Ms. Shanahan called a friend who had family connections to an ad agency, and got a recommendation for an editor in New York, who agreed on Sunday morning to take on the project. Another friend of Ms. Shanahan’s suggested “something retro,” she said.
Working with a small team, she said, “We spent the next 10 hours looking at every single retro ad we could find,” she said. “The Kennedy jingle got stuck in our head.” She had never seen the original advertisement, she said.
Mr. Lyons said he was brought into the ad production process once a rough cut had been put together, he said, and presented it to Paramount. “She was the driving force behind the decision to do this ad. When I heard about it, I loved the idea.”
Mr. Lyons said the network pushed back with concerns about whether the super PAC could use the original ad without legal worries. The group conferred with a lawyer, who said the 1960 ad was in the public domain.
Ms. Shanahan said there had been some concern that the Kennedy family might not approve of the ad. “They might be upset, but some might be thrilled,” she speculated. “What a beautiful homage to this wonderful family.”
Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.