The Potters scored three times without response in 18 first-half minutes, signalling a mass exodus around the Stadium of Light from disgruntled supporters.
Sunderland are now winless in four top-flight outings and have just one victory in their last seven which, coupled with three points for Hull City elsewhere this afternoon, leaves them 19th in the table after 21 games.
Marko Arnautovic proved to be the game's key player with two of those three quick-fire goals, the first of which arrived 15 minutes in when converting at the second attempt after initially being denied by Vito Mannone.
A fine second followed, with Arnautovic continuing his run into the box following some intricate play to smash home and put Sunderland on their way to a sixth home league defeat this season.
There was to be the smallest of lifelines for Sunderland prior to the break, as Jermain Defoe maintained his impressive spell with another goal after racing on to a long ball and slotting into the corner.
Both teams probed away in the second half but shots on goal proved to be harder to come by - just the one apiece over the remaining 45 minutes of the contest.
That proved to be it in the end, meaning just a second win in eight in all competitions for Mark Hughes and his men, who move into the top half of the division.