According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, only about half (52 percent) of American homes have a fireplace. For the 48 percent of us who are flueless, it's not easy getting into the holiday spirit—not when just about every popular conception of Christmas revolves around chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming down the chimney.
Fortunately, there is a substitute: the Yule log.
Chances are you've already noticed, and probably watched, one of these ersatz holiday fireplaces. But in case you haven't, the Yule log goes like this: It's a video of a fireplace with logs burning inside it. You watch it. That's it.
Some Yule logs can get pretty elaborate. Virtual Fireplace, for example, allows viewers to select their own pile of logs and even choose from several different combustion sounds. Some of them are themed, such as the Darth Vader Yule Log, which shows the famous villain's remains atop the logs. (Say what you want, but the thing has over 1.2 million views.) Still others feature internet stars. Celebrity cat Lil Bub, for instance, has his own Yule log video.
"Fire has something magical in real life, and for some reason this still works to a level on a screen," explains Virtual Fireplace founder Jeroen Klap. "Even people who are skeptical at first will find that they automatically keep staring at the fire on the screen and get calm and cozy. Somehow the sight of a controlled fire, either real or on a screen, gives us a sense of safety and well-being."
Branding by the fireside
But as a number of brands have discovered, the sight of a controlled fire on screen can also make for some pretty good marketing. The Happy Yule Log, which debuted last year, featured an orange cat named Happy and a dog (also named Happy), and was brought to you by the Hallmark Channel. (Happy and Happy, both rescued from shelters, also star in a new 2016 Yule log video, a three-hour broadcast that premiered on Thanksgiving and will return on Christmas Eve.)
In 2015, Budweiser and Lagavulin single malt scotch put up branded Yule Log videos, the former featuring a Clydesdale munching hay hearthside (see GIF above) and the latter featuring Nick Offerman sitting by the fireplace—for 10 hours and 24 minutes.
This year, a number of other brands have jumped into the fire. Hearthstone—the Blizzard Entertainment-owned, web-based fantasy card game—put up a Yule log that features its signature creatures (called Murlocs) attempting (though not quite succeeding) to sing holiday music while the logs burn.
"While Yule logs are becoming a go-to for brands, Hearthstone is in a unique position because the hearth has always been such an important part of the experience," said a spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment. "It's where our players come to connect, whether they are logging in to the Hearthstone tavern via their phones or computers, or attending a local Fireside Gathering event."
The Blizzard rep demurred from calling its Yule log a marketing effort, but did say that "we want to make [the gaming community's] experience as epic as possible," and the video is part of that. Some Hearthstone fans, she added, really do spend a full hour watching the Yule log video, which at press time had some 728,000 views.
Then there's the Yule log for the Xbox game Dead Rising 4. The game, a story already set during the holidays, promises "mass zombie destruction," and the Yule log video delivers. To the cheery crooning of a holiday tune, protagonist Frank West wanders over to the fireplace to periodically toss the arms and legs of the zombies he's killed into the flames, where they crackle and pop. So, yeah, it's not a video you'd play for Grandma.
"The Dead Rising franchise is known for being over the top and never afraid to push the boundaries," explained the game's marketing lead Henry Liu. "We grounded the marketing campaign around the idea of 'hijacking the holidays'—we'd take traditional holiday tropes but put a Dead Rising spin on it.
"Everyone is familiar with the Yule log video—a holiday tradition, simple yet fun for everyone. By introducing zombies into the equation, we were able to create something that was different from other Yule log videos, yet completely true to the Dead Rising brand." (XBox has taken care to put a warning about "blood and gore" just before the video starts rolling.)
The flames may burn higher
Even though behemoths like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Microsoft have kindled Yule logs as a branding idea, some believe the idea remains underdeveloped.
"I've always thought that there were ways to monetize these with branding," noted Petur Workman, CEO of Workman Global, a brand agency that forges relationships between creative companies and midsize to major brands. "It wouldn't be anything blatant—not 'buy my product'—but the hearth or mantel could contain something more subliminal."
For example, Workman suggested, what if there were a picture frame above the hearth that could contain a brand message? Or what if you could sell a musical artist on the chance to have his or her songs play in the background? Digital Yule logs, Workman said, "are brilliant. I think they're genius. But I don't see that they've maximized their capabilities."
You can ask Klap about that. When he started Virtual Fireplace in 2014, it was just a hobby—that is, until Google approached him to join its AdSense program and he discovered he could make money licensing his digital Yule logs to a variety of companies, who in turn use them for marketing. Revenue from his first Yule logs now let him create new ones.
"I sell commercial licenses to all sorts of companies, from homes for the elderly—which cannot have real fireplaces due to safety reasons—to cable TV companies that want to provide their subscribers with a relaxing fireplace channel," Klap said.
In fact, two years into his Yule log venture, Klap's big challenge isn't selling the fire, it's finding fireplaces to shoot (that's one of them, above) since he doesn't have his own. "I'm always looking for people who have a nice fireplace and asking them if I can film it. Sometimes people watch over my shoulder to make sure I don't burn down their house."
Like those logs? Thank WPIX
Behind the present-day pile of logs is another burning question: How did the idea of watching a fireplace on a screen get started, anyway?
In fact, it all started exactly 50 years ago when New York TV station WPIX's manager Fred Thrower made the fateful decision to suspend scheduled programming in favor of three solid hours of a burning fireplace. With Mayor John Lindsay's blessing, a PIX crew shot the footage on 16 mm film at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence. Technicians spliced two minutes of film together to get three hours of Yule Log, slapped some Christmas music on top of it, and put it on the air at 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
"It was meant to be a Christmas card to New Yorkers," said WPIX's digital and social strategy director Rolando Pujol. "It was never meant to be something we'd make bank on." (In fact, by preempting the scheduled programming—a roller derby show, of all things—the station lost $4,000 that first year. That's nearly $30,000 in today's dollars.)
But as the station discovered, the Yule log was a huge hit, garnering the sort of goodwill among the viewing public that had a value of its own, if perhaps an unquantifiable one.
Pujol has been with WPIX only since 2012 but this year found himself an unlikely player in the Yule log's long story. The original 1966 footage went missing sometime after 1969, when the film wore out and PIX decided to shoot another fireplace instead. (Because a spark from the fireplace burned an expensive rug during the original shoot, the mayor did not invite PIX back to Gracie Mansion, and PIX found a new fireplace at a house in California, instead.)
The original footage was believed lost for good, until Pujol got a phone call in 2014 from a woman in Paramus, N.J. She was selling a house that had once belonged to the late Bill Cooper, longtime supervisor of WPIX's film and tape department. The caller informed Pujol that she had a garage full of old film canisters, and asked if he'd like to have them. "We loaded up two vans and brought it all down to the basement," Pujol related.
Now, fast forward to this summer. "It's July of 2016, and I'm down in the basement looking for footage of Donald Trump in the 1980s," he said. "Some of the film cans were on an eye-level shelf. I was walking by, and it jumped out at me, a can that read: 'Orig. WPIX Fireplace.'"
It was the 1966 Yule log, footage Pujol had restored, and it will be broadcast this year starting on Christmas Eve.
With the exception of a few years during the 1990s when the Yule log was on hiatus, WPIX still preempts several hours of revenue programming each Christmas to let those logs burn, a decision that's become increasingly difficult as traditional television struggles to stay competitive. The early-morning slot that the Yule log will air is when the station would usually run infomercials, "and those are our bread and butter," Pujol said. Yet he firmly believes that hours of that holiday fireplace ultimately benefits the WPIX brand.
"When you think about the world today with its diversity of information, anything we can do to keep WPIX's identity, give it a sense of place, is more important now than it was in 1966," he said. "So much of what we show on our air is commodity content. But the Yule log is unique and special. It has a halo effect on everything else we do."