Despite its popularity in consumer research, means-end chain (MEC) theory suffers from problems of unconfirmed validity. Theoretically, MECs can be cast as associative networks with a three-layered structure that should exhibit four properties: hierarchicity, automatic spreading activation, bidirectionality, and self-relevance. The predictions were tested in altogether six experiments, using the same basic methodology. Two sessions were held with each participant. In a pilot session, a set of conventional MEC representations was elicited from each participant using the laddering technique. From this material, individualized stimulus sets were generated for use in the second session. In the second session, each participant completed a series of single-presentation lexical decision tasks. Analysis of spreading activation processes under different procedural variations showed that MECs are firmly represented in people's memory. However, the associative structure of MECs deviated substantially from what had been hypothesized. The assumption of hierarchicity appeared especially problematic. Only little evidence was found that suggested that MECs had a chain structure. Rather, it appeared that MECs were non-hierarchically associated, displaying properties of a single-layered network with high associative redundancy.