It should be clear from previous chapters that traditional advertising's effectiveness has been much exaggerated. At the same time, newer forms of advertising, especially paid product placements, longer video commercials and web advertising (employing behavioral targeting) are all growing in potential influence and power. The exaggerated effectiveness of traditional advertising is based on what seem to be powerful psychological mechanisms: learning without awareness, making brands into symbols, having people see a brand in different ways, the influence of conformity and the use of brands to express identity. So why has traditional advertising not been anywhere near as powerful as many people feared?
This chapter explores the many factors that severely constrain and often frustrate the power of individual advertisers to influence us. It shows how difficult it is for advertisers to make these psychological mechanisms work and how their unbridled use in any wholesale manipulation has been virtually impossible. Just as democratic political systems are supposed to have various checks and balances to constrain the power of elected governments to dictate to us, so too are 'checks and balances' inherent in the competitive environment in which advertisers operate. In addition, we consumers vote with our feet—the most powerful constraint of all. When the brand or the product does not live up to its promise, when it does not meet the expectations created by the advertising, then we simply don't buy it again. So as we shall see, traditional advertising's power has been constrained as much by practical limitations as by absolute limitations.
One of the most important limitations on any advertiser's power to influence us is the activity of its competitors. Competitors' advertising,