Super Bowl ads cost a fortune. So when the group supporting the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ran a 30-second ad for him during Sunday night’s game, the political world took notice.
How did a longtime independent candidate’s super PAC pay for such an expensive spot, and whose idea was it to adapt a vintage John F. Kennedy ad for his nephew’s campaign?
The main source of funding — and creative direction — turned out to be Nicole Shanahan, a lawyer, entrepreneur and Democratic donor who was once married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
In an interview Monday, Ms. Shanahan said she gave $4 million to a super PAC, American Values 2024, about a week before the game, specifically to help pay for Super Bowl advertising. She also helped coordinate ad production, she said, including navigating the concerns of 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 for the environment, vaccines and children’s health, and her belief that Mr. Kennedy was ready to challenge the scientific establishment.
“I wonder about vaccine injuries,” she said, though she clarified that she was “not anti-vaccination” but wanted more review of the risks of vaccination. “I think there needs to be room for 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 think we have an environmental crisis in this country,” Ms. Shanahan said. “I believe Americans deserve clean water. And we cannot achieve that in the current political climate.”
Tony Lyons, co-chairman of American Values 2024, confirmed Ms. Shanahan’s role and the timeline she outlined from the ad’s production. He said several other donors stepped 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, which is 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 criticized it for spreading vaccine conspiracy theories and promoting other misinformation.
In a post on social network X on Sunday night, Mr. Kennedy distanced himself from the scene, noting that the super PAC is legally barred from consulting with the campaign, and saying he was “so sorry if the Super Bowl commercial caused anyone pain in my family.”
As of Monday afternoon, the ad was still pinned to his profile, though it was later removed. Stefanie Spear, press secretary for the Kennedy campaign, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. On Sunday, she said the campaign was “pleasantly surprised and grateful” for the ad.
Ms. Shanahan, 38, is a lawyer and technology entrepreneur in the Bay Area who has invested in scientific research, particularly in health and the environment. She married Mr. Brin in 2018; their divorce was finalized last summer.
Ms. Shanahan, who has a record of giving to Democrats — including President Biden’s 2020 campaign — and described herself on Monday as a “progressive through and through,” made the maximum contribution of $6,600 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 had blocked him from challenging Mr Biden – Ms Shanahan said she was “incredibly disappointed” and decided not to endorse him.
In recent weeks, she said, she had reconsidered because she had met people who were “really enthusiastic” about Mr. Kennedy. “There are pockets of quiet support everywhere,” she said.
She said she first spoke to Mr. Lyons on Feb. 2, who told her he wanted to run a Super Bowl ad but didn’t have the money.
American Values said it raised more than $28 million last year, but that figure includes a $10 million contribution from Gavin de Becker, a well-known security consultant — $9.7 million of which was returned, records show.
The super PAC said the funds from Mr. de Becker, whose firm provided Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, were “important bridge funding donations” and that the money was returned to him when it was not needed. “He continues to provide bridging funds, such as the $4 million he donated in February,” Mr. Lyons said in a statement.
The super PAC also received $15 million last year from Timothy Mellon, the banking heir and businessman who also gave $10 million in 2023 to the super PAC supporting former President Donald J. Trump. The role of Mr. Mellon raised eyebrows among some Democrats, with widespread fear in the party that Mr. Kennedy could draw votes from Mr. Biden.
After the ad was published on Sunday night, the Democratic National Committee accused Mr. Kennedy of serving as “Trump’s stalking horse” and seeking to undermine Mr. Biden. In response, the super PAC said the DNC is “using every political trick it can think of” to prevent Mr. Kennedy on the ballot. (Mr. Biden’s allies have indeed tried to fend 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 January 31. The super PAC said it plans to spend more than $15 million to support the Kennedy campaign’s efforts to get his name on the ballot in 12 states — an effort contested by the DNC, which filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission last week accusing the groups of improper coordination.
Ms. Shanahan said that after a Feb. 2 phone conversation with Mr. Lyons, she sent the super PAC $4 million to pay for a Super Bowl ad.
But the next day, Saturday, Mr. Lyons told her that the ad they were working on could not run because of concerns about laws barring super PACs from coordinating with candidates. The ad included footage of Mr. Kennedy speaking into the camera, she said.
“Neither of us was willing to give up on the idea of a Super Bowl ad,” Mr. Lyons said. “He was censored in so many different ways that many people in the United States didn’t know he was running, even though he was going around the country working around the clock to get his message out.”
That night, Ms. Shanahan called a friend who had family ties to the advertising agency and got a recommendation for an editor in New York, who agreed to take on the project on Sunday morning. Another friend of Ms. Shanahan suggested “something retro,” she said.
Working with a small team, she said, “We spent the next 10 hours looking at every retro ad we could find,” she said. “Kennedy’s jingle got stuck in our heads.” She said she never saw the original ad.
Mr. Lyons said he was brought into the ad production process after the rough cut was assembled, he said, and presented to Paramount. “She was the driving force behind the decision to make this commercial. When I heard about it, I loved the idea.”
Mr. Lyons said the network backed out because of concerns about whether the super PAC could use the original ad without legal concerns. The group spoke with a lawyer, who said the 1960 ad was in the public domain.
Ms Shanahan said there were concerns the Kennedy family might not approve the ad. “They might be upset, but some might be delighted,” she speculates. “What a wonderful tribute to this wonderful family.”
Jim Rutenberg contributed to the reporting.