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Having just watched Thieves Like Us (1974), I was struck by how often we saw characters drinking bottles of Coke and pointing out how much they "needed" it, or how "healthy" it was. Also many Coke dispensers, advertising posters, hoardings, etc. appeared throughout the movie.

Somewhat strangely (from my perspective), there were even placards advertising Coke on the outside of what I assume were inmates' dormitory huts at the penitentiary.

Looking through the "Trivia" snippets on IMDB, I got the impression Robert Altman faced some real problems financing the movie. Is it possible this put Altman in a really weak position, and that Coca-Cola were thus able to exert real pressure on him to "over-feature" their product - so much that my "willing suspension of disbelief" ended up close to breaking point?

I've always had great respect for Altman, not least because I think he often introduces some rather "subversive" elements into his movies. So I wonder if there's any evidence to suggest which of these 3 possibilities (or something I haven't thought of) comes closer to the truth...

1: Coca-Cola had Altman over a (financial) barrel - he had to go overboard
2: His portrayal of Coke was considered "natural" to Americans at the time
3: He was making a barbed unpaid comment on rampant product placement

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I would say that your third answer is closest: "he was making a barbed unpaid comment on rampant product placement". In the film there is one scene where a small truck with a giant coke bottle is being chased by children after a free coke, like they are being pushed with it. The lingering shot of the coke adverts outside the penitentiary can NOT be a real product placement, it's surely a sarcastic comment. The ubiquitous presence of coke is also a part of the period study along with the ubiquitous presence of radio music/shows. The Shelley Duvall character is almost addicted to coke in opposition to the whisky drinking bank robbers.

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