Where I live there is a lot more television or billboard advertising for operators than there is by the likes of Apple, Samsung or Nokia, although Samsung have certainly spent a tidy sum, and a lot of that advertising features actual handsets and not (or not merely) details of various plans. It wouldn't surprise me if various adverts that I thought were Samsung ones were actually ones for operators albeit with some Samsung money involved. Indeed, between the different operators, there isn't much to choose between when it comes to plans, so it's mostly a game of name recognition and showing a nice gadget next to your logo.
Forgetting the frequency compatibility argument because that surely hasn't been particularly relevant in most markets for a decade or two, the tradition of buying from operators is sustained by things like convenience and easy finance: you get a new phone in one transaction and you can persuade yourself that it didn't cost you very much (or that you would rather live with the deferred costs). The fragile part of the operators' power is the part where they tell the manufacturers what to put in each product, but the more sensible operators will have already figured out by now to just shut up and take the money (for the superfluous services being offered to the punters that they will never fully use).
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